• Arpit Bhutani

Interview with Anders Breitholz from the Material Challenge Lab

Q1. What is material design for you?

For me is the combination of science, engineering, economics, sustainability, and design. A mixture of everything. From molecular i.e. micro scale to things like full-scale facades for buildings on a macro level. So instead of creating a product or building, you design the components, the pieces of Lego that in itself will make up or be combined into new or already existing artifacts in production. Production compatibility is key, and in a sense, one can say I have gone from being an industrial designer to a material “industrialization designer” or a “design test”.

Q2. Why did you choose to work with materials? Tell us a bit about the journey.

Well, it is nearly twenty years ago that I left my academic studies which was a split between, on one hand, engineering studying Industrial Economy at Chalmers and at the same time attending HDK which is part of the Fine Arts faculty studying industrial design. And even though my cv was full of academic points I felt that I didn’t know anything about materials and the real industry. A bit like being a musician who didn’t know any sounds. In early 2000 we were a group of designers who, inspired by Material ConneXion that had just started then, created our own so-called Material library. A place where you source and showcase advanced, innovative, and sustainable physical samples of materials and production techniques. As our classmates who had ended up at the design departments at Volvo, Ikea, H&M and the other big brands in Sweden came hunting for knowledge and solutions for their innovation, brand, and sustainability agendas. The material works is so vast, complex, and fascinating so there isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t learn something new.


Q3. How did the Material Challenge Lab come into existence?

I have taken parts in hundreds of product development projects ranging from automotive to opera production, so guys like me have unique experience in what kinds of innovative, advanced, and innovative materials go into production and which ones don’t. Also how, when, and by whom decisions are made and what the companies are looking for. As I, literally have seen, thousands upon thousands of existing and new materials I wanted to create materials for the circular economy that can make an impact for real. Especially not just to make fancy materials that work in a lab environment but in an industrial context.

Material design session with automotive

designer Anders Breitholtz

Q4. What kind of projects is the lab involved in? How do you implement the eco-design wheel methodology in your projects?

We work cross-market. In the morning I might work for a MedTech company on new prostheses, around lunch in a publicly funded project on furniture design for a circular economy, the in the afternoon discussing how to scale production for turning waste stream from the paper and pulp industry into polymers. Eco-design wheel is often used on a product development level. But more often we start projects by mapping environmental impact (LCAs) and cost structures (LCCs) and compare them with where value is created (LCPs). Then we generate different potential ways to address challenges such as increased material efficiency and lowered CO2 footprint often in combination with enhancing sustainability, innovation, and branding strategies.

Q5. How do you measure circularity in your projects?

That is a great question! Here in Sweden, some use a quite simple formula by dividing the amount of recycled material content compared to virgin. However, I think it’s a gross generalization if it’s not combined with a more holistic approach including LCA, business models etc. Personally, I believe in finding system solutions that are implementable in a real societal and industrial reality. It is very complex and often unique to the products, the materials, the recycling industries etc.

Q6. If you could give one piece of advice to young circular economy innovators, what would that be?

It’s a continuous learning process. It will never stop. Be curious and make sure to start structuring your learning process. Don’t just get stuck in endless meetings, instead go and visit the manufacturing industries or recycling plants and talk to people on the work floor. Ie combine theory and practice. Ask questions. Try to get a grip of volumes and resource flows. Because the circular economy is all about resource management and value creation towards a more robust and sustainable society. Finally, I can be a bit dramatic and say that we do not need more product designs we need more circular materials and designs.