Circular Product Design and PCBs for a Healthier World

Created: March 20, 2018
Updated: September 25, 2020

Gear in a leaf outline vector

The world of PCB design is a fast-moving and highly profitable sector. But with the rate of increase we are clearly seeing in the industry, it is apparent that if we are not careful, we may head into some stiff environmental issues that are too deep to repair. Thankfully the push we are seeing from environmental groups is equally correlated to the growth of the industry. The concept of a ‘circular economy’ is at the forefront of these qualms.

Circular design in its essence is the practice of designing PCBs with the intent to keep the design in ‘rotation’ for as long as possible, rather than the conventional linear concept of make, sell, use, and dispose of. It isn’t just the responsibility of manufacturing to have better machinery and processes, but also on the designers themselves to make products which are more accommodating to this circular economy.

Thankfully, the creative designers and engineers that we have today and that are being brought up in today’s environments are being challenged to think about these circular economies with their designs. Having the right understanding of how to keep a product in rotation will inevitably encourage these healthier standards of designing.

Technology Enables Circular Product Design

Being known for your environmental prowess will get you far until your device falls behind the pack—then you might as well be as good as gone. Keeping your technology at the forefront of the market is the single most important thing you can do to remain competitive in the industry. But keeping your device up to date often requires updates whether it be hardware, software, or anything in-between, you’ll eventually find yourself on the bridge.

With the advancement in IoT devices updating the technology in your devices will become more simplistic. Current devices such as smartphones and laptops rely heavily on software updates and are able to successfully remain competitive without having to remove a single screw. Designing with the intention of relying on these software updates via methods such as over the air (via internet updates) will guarantee at least a little wiggle room towards competitiveness.

Depending on your device, you still may be forced to rely on hardware updates in order to gain the edge (while keeping true to a circular design mindset). This is where clever solutions of PCB design come into play.

Software update
Designing your device for software updates is an emerging design style that can be employed to keep your device competitive

Repair, Reuse, or Recycle: PCBs can Adapt

Early in the design phase, you should attempt to define the components or boards that will most likely fail or become obsolete the quickest. Making sure these components or boards are easily accessible for repair will be the next step.

Avoiding using proprietary fastening hardware or glue will assist in future repair and replacement of these components. Additionally, the design will be more readily accepted by third-party repair and upgrade shops if repairs are intuitive. Even making these upgrade procedures readily available to these shops (or even for home repair) will smooth the process over.

Re-using a PCB or a design may prove to be challenging, and can seem at-ends with the product’s goal; however, designing something for easy integration into future devices, or for easy disassembling, will help your devices become healthier. Although this is rather far removed from what most design engineers will be tasked to do (or even consider doing), it is an essential next step that a design will embark on once the device breathes its last breath.

As counter-intuitive as it may sound, designing the device to make it easier to disassemble will, again, greatly assist in this circular design theory. Devices such as laptops and televisions should be able to be taken apart in minutes. Equally as important, the PCBs and other components should be easily accessible and right there for the taking (or remaking).

Multi-Board Circular Techniques

Understanding your devices weak points as well as gaining an understanding of where technology trends are headed can greatly assist in designing for circular use. We are beginning to see an increase in multi-board and rigid-flex designs.

These designs give us a two-fold benefit. First, we’ll be able to place multiple boards anywhere within our devices (expanding our design plane), which leads to a second benefit.

Thinking in terms of future hardware updates or upgrades, we might be so clever as to place our ‘weak points’ onto a single board (assuming a multi-rigid-flex-board design) that is easily accessible. In theory (and if designed correctly), this will make it ridiculously simple to swap out this single board for a new board with all the bells and whistles, once the time comes.

Pile of multiboard PCBs
Multi-board designs can give multiple benefits for circular design

If you’re looking to begin taking the first steps away from the conventional linear design product cycle, and into a more earth-friendly circular design, you’ll still need to treat your designs like anything else. Keep your weak points in mind and keep technological advancements in mind, and perhaps we can reach that end goal of 100% recyclable designing.

You can’t do any of this without a strong PCB design software that will give you the tools necessary to design to your creative capacity. Further advancements in design software allow us to seamlessly stay at the forefront of these design challenges. Whether it be board space constraints, rigid-flex designs, or component placement designed for circular use, fantastic programs such as Altium Designer® can keep you leading the pack.

If you want to hear more about how Altium can assist in your circular design challenges, talk to an Altium expert today.

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