Using a Different Lens: Virtual Product Chains

Karl Vrancken

October 23, 2018

Karl Vrancken (°1969), is research manager sustainable materials management at VITO. He is responsible for the strategic management of VITO’s Materials programme. He has a part-time assignment as professor at the University of Antwerp (Dept. Bio-engineering), where he teaches sustainable resources management. Karl is a working group member in the European Innovation Partnership on Raw Materials (DG ENT) and consortium chairman of the EEA European Topic Centre on Waste and Materials for a Green Economy. In 2015 he was seconded to Berlin (Germany) to start up the knowledge and innovation community (KIC) EIT Raw Materials, as interim Chief Operations Officer (iCOO), for which he now holds the chairmanship of the Western Co-location Centre.

We now move past the innovative digital sorting and characterisation technologies that enhance a circular economy at the end of the loop, and instead take a look at digital’s ability to generate detailed information about, and track products across their life cycle. While the above looks at closing the loop from a post-consumption/user perspective, here we take a broader perspective, using a value chain approach. We should be able to monitor the life cycles of materials and products to enable the redirection of materials into their optimal route. Tagging and identification systems can provide part of the solution. Digital twins are used to model and optimise production systems. Their application in product chains is being explored. 

BLOCKCHAIN

Blockchain technology allows tracking of materials across transactions and into new life phases. Accordingly, blockchain technology can develop a track record for products and their parts, providing insights in view of their repair and re-use, or recovery of their parts. This results in the necessary sharing of information to achieve a circular economy. The development of virtual product chains that mimic real product chain behaviour generates a need for data management and interpretation, and the set-up of data systems. Whereas data science already finds application in the field of manufacturing, there is a need to further develop its integration into circular and virtual product chains.

By stressing the importance of communication and information systems, G-STIC 2018 delves deeper into technology’s ability to generate collaboration and trust between, and within businesses. We aim to spark discussion around digital technology’s role in generating a secure supply chain with greater transparency, and what the roles of governments and businesses are in pushing innovative technologies like the ones introduced. Furthermore, we aim to investigate the ways in which complex digital concepts like blockchain and digital twins can be simplified to companies with less technical understanding, and consequently encourage them to go down the digital path.

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