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Circular products as a service; happy returns and eco-innovations?
By closing the cycle of product flow, in circular economy loss of valuable natural resources, components and materials is prevented. However, end of life (EoL) products not only contain materials, they also contain information regarding the use phase and unforeseen failure modes. This information could potentially be used to evaluate the original product design and generate ideas for longer lasting or circular products. Notwithstanding this potential, a few studies focus on possibilities for learning from life-cycle information to improve product design, as a recent review showed. The aim of this paper is to explore the conditions under which information retrieval from EoL products is feasible and could be a useful strategy for eco-innovation.Literature and case study form the basis for the paper. The case study included semi-structured interviews with product managers, designers, business managers and product recovery experts in the Dutch heat pump branch.The heat pump industry in the Netherlands is relatively young. The first generation heat pumps (from the ‘90’s) are now in their EoL phase. But it’s also a fast growing industry. While the installed base now is 200.000, it’s expected to reach 1,3 million in 2030. Technology driven, business practice is rather traditionally based on linear economy principles. Activities in the field of ‘circular installations’ are scarce. Product removal is motivated by legislation. Most of the EoL products end as scrap. From interviews, we derived the preliminary conclusion that Dutch heat pump industry hardly uses EoL information.The literature study for this paper was focused on information transfer and innovation management in relation with the Product as a service (PSS) business concept and Closed Loop Supply Chain Management. The subject proved to be and multi- and interdisciplinary research field. The sample of papers grew as a rolling snowball via Google Scholar. Crossref is used to check on key publications. Research shows that capital- and technology intensive manufacturers (e.g. aerospace, automotive, IT), shifting to ‘Product as a Service’ business concepts, actually acknowledge the information value of returnedproducts to reduce maintenance risks, optimize their performance and even prolong the use phase. The PSS business model, because of the extended ownership, facilitated the transfer of information. However these case-studies also illustrated major deficiencies in the information flow. Interviews with representatives of key actors in the heat pump production chain illustrate comparable barriers in the information flow. These barriers include problems with codification of tacit knowledge, absence or inefficiency of knowledge systems and conflict of interests or weak ties between inter-organisational departments themselves and external chain actors. In the paper we show how the Dutch heat pump industry can learn from the solutions found e.g. in the automotive industry.