KION Subsidiary Dematic Takes Cradle to Cradle® Approach in Important Steps Toward Circular Economy

Product design has always been a challenge. But in recent years, the bar has been raised even higher by the pressing requirement to keep the impact of products on the environment to an absolute minimum. With a New Green Deal agenda and the Circular Economy Action Plan, the European Union (EU) has already announced a number of measures that are designed to help Europe achieve climate neutrality by 2050. KION subsidiary Dematic is taking an important step toward this more sustainable, climate positive future by embracing the Cradle to Cradle approach in rethinking their products in terms of material safety and recyclability (making them more circular).

Source: Braungard/McDonough; © EPEA GmbH – Part of Drees & Sommer

In nature, there is no waste. Everything is reused and integrated into new cycles. A cherry tree, for example, produces hundreds of thousands of flowers only to bear relatively few fruits, as Prof. Dr. Michael Braungart, founder and scientific CEO of EPEA Internationale Umweltforschung GmbH, explains. However, the excess organic material falls to the ground and provides vital nutrients for other participants in the cycle — from microorganisms and insects to fungi, mosses, and grasses. Everything is used; nothing is considered waste. The intention is to apply these principles of nature to industrial processes, products, and buildings using the concept of C2C and thereby to develop products that are truly suitable for a circular economy. The Innovation Department at KION subsidiary Dematic has been addressing this C2C approach since 2021. Susanna Felker, Concepting Engineer Innovation and Project Manager at Dematic, knows the benefits, “Incorporating C2C into product design creates lots of opportunities for differentiation and enormous potential for innovation.”

Nature as a Role Model: The Cradle to Cradle Design Principles

Cradle to Cradle (C2C) is a set of design principles developed in the 1990s by Prof. Dr. Michael Braungart, William McDonough and EPEA Hamburg. It stands for innovation, quality, and beneficial design. Cradle to Cradle describes the safe and potentially infinite circulation of materials and nutrients in cycles. All constituents are chemically safe and recyclable. Waste as we know it today, generated according to the pre-existing take-make-waste model, will no longer exist — only useful nutrients.

From a Line to a Circle: Holistic Thinking for a Sustainable Future

The Innovation Department at Dematic pursues visionary ideas — not just for new products, but also for creating more sustainability in product design. Felker explains how the C2C principles work and how they can be applied to Dematic products, “Cradle to Cradle divides all materials into two cycles: a biological cycle and a technical cycle. Materials such as natural fibers and biological packaging belongs into the biological cycle. That also means, all consumable products such as cleaning agents or cotton textiles have to be designed for the biological cycle so they can safely be fed back into natures nutrient system after their use phase. Meanwhile, technical products can be manufactured from durable materials like metals and certain plastics, which can endlessly circulate in the technical cycle — like warehouse automation systems, for example.”

The materials at Dematic are already always selected in accordance with environmental guidelines and, moving forward, will increasingly be evaluated as part of a lifecycle assessment to determine their environmental impact. The lifecycle assessment determines the overall environmental impact of production across a product's entire lifecycle — from production and use to disposal of the product, as well as the associated upstream and downstream processes. The resulting information forms the basis for optimization measures and the development of new products according to the C2C approach. “If during the development phase we view our products as resources for a subsequent product life, we can design products so the materials remain in the technical cycle at the end of the product lifecycle for use as resources in new products. This is precisely the new way of thinking that we want to encourage with our Cradle to Cradle project,” says Felker.

First Candidate for the C2C Experiment: The Dematic Multishuttle®

The first product to be put under the microscope for C2C compliance assessment demonstrates just how important the project is for Dematic: The Dematic Multishuttle is one of its bestselling products. “There are around 400 different components in the Dematic Multishuttle,” explains Felker. “Every single one of them must now be carefully examined: Are the raw materials used circular? Are there healthier alternatives? To answer these questions, we have started to analyze the materials we use to assess their material health profile from a C2C perspective and determine whether their procurement poses a risk to humans or the environment. We are also assessing the circular nature of the materials.”

As a general rule, the purer the materials and the easier they are to separate, the more suitable they are for reuse. Particular attention therefore needs to be paid to mixed materials (such as a subassembly with multiple parts glued together). Another variable to consider is the standardization of materials — the fewer materials used, the less work is required later when reintroducing the materials into new cycles. “We still have a way to go, but for the majority of the metals used, we have already been able to determine that they are essentially suitable for the Cradle to Cradle approach. For the remaining materials, efforts are currently underway to determine whether the materials used are noncritical and can be substituted. We are working in close collaboration with our suppliers to do this,” says Felker, summarizing the current status of the project.

Climate Neutrality by 2050: The EU's New Green Deal and Circular Economy Action Plan

Under the New Green Deal, the 27 EU Member States have committed to making Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. To this end, they have agreed to reduce emissions by at least 55% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. These goals are laid down in the European Climate Law, which was presented on March 4, 2020 along with the second Circular Economy Action Plan. This action plan covers much more than just waste management and starts with the very first step in the production chain: product design of products. Product design should produce durability and reparability, provide upgrade options, and facilitate the recycling of raw materials.

First Milestones on the Path to a Circular Future

Will it be possible to build the Dematic Multishuttle entirely in keeping with the Cradle to Cradle philosophy in the near future? “We can’t give a definitive answer to that question just yet,” says Felker. “One thing is certain, though — if we embrace the Cradle to Cradle approach, we can significantly improve circularity.” The Innovation Department has already started to gather some initial findings over the course of the process. For example, in the material analysis, they have turned their focus very early on to the PVC labels used on Dematic Multishuttles. PVC has very poor recycling properties, so they are already looking for an alternative. If successful, they will use this alternative on all products. While the process still has a long way to go, the long-term goal of C2C is clear: Minimize negative environmental effects and evolve toward having a positive impact in all categories — people, planet, and profit. This new way of thinking is definitely taking root in the Innovation Department at Dematic.

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