Remanufacturing as Disruptive Innovation

Kevin Surace: Remanufacturing will play a huge role alongside autonomous transport, artificial intelligence, robotics, and other game changers in a new era of sustainability.

By Niels V Christiansen, US Editor

In the face of the threats from global warming and unsustainable use of resources, Kevin Surace, entrepreneur, innovator, visionary, and keynote speaker at the RIC-RIT World Remanufacturing Conference on October 9-10, believes that we can still save the planet and ourselves from global warming by reimagining everything and inspiring game changing disruptive innovation.

“Remanufacturing can be disruptive innovation in and of itself,” he said. The definition of disruptive innovation is that you not only disrupt the industry you’re in, but you can also disrupt other adjacent industries at the same time. It’s a really powerful and amazing idea.”


Surace is recognized as one of the thinkers and doers behind the change that’s going to come. He may not have the name recognition of Apple’s Steve Jobs, Microsoft’s Bill Gates or Tesla’s Elon Musk, but his impact is wide ranging across many industries.

Surace helped pioneer both the smartphone and the digital voice assistant. He is a leader in developing and applying artificial intelligence, AI, and is currently the Chief Technology Officer of, using AI in revolutionary automated testing of computer programs.

He has 84 patents to his credit, spreads his ideas globally as a speaker at TED talks, academic, business, industry, and science conferences, and in front of lawmakers. He is one of the most famous and influential graduates of Rochester Institute of Technology, (RIT) where he now serves on the Board of Trustees.


Perhaps his highest accolades were bestowed on him after a decade long foray into the construction industry and remanufacturing. As CEO of Serious Materials, Surace led the development of alternative environmentally friendly building materials in an attempt to disrupt the most environmentally challenged industry in the world, construction.

In the highest profile Serious Materials project, Surace and his team set up a remanufacturing operation on the fifth floor of New York’s Empire State Building and remanufactured the building’s 6,556 windows into environmentally friendly replacements. Window energy efficiency increased by 400%. The project paid for itself in four years in energy cost savings.

Surace was named entrepreneur of the year in 2009 by Inc Magazine and recognized as one of 15 innovators of the decade by the CNBC financial news TV channel, among many other honors.

The Golisano Institute for Sustainability at RIT, of which Surace was a leading proponent, incorporated the innovation from Serious Materials into its structure when it was built in 2012, and Surace was inducted into the RIT Innovation Hall of Fame.

A renaissance man with a separate career in the music industry near his home in Sunnyvale, California, Surace’s extraordinary journey into future technologies and sustainability solutions led him to seven years ago.


“We try to use disruptive innovation in Silicon Valley in the way we work,” he told Reman World. “Immediately, most people are going to be thinking that anything disruptive is not going to be possible.

“If you were going to heal metal in an airplane, a car or engine, people are going to say, ‘wow, that’s impossible. Somebody would have started doing it years ago’. But we can totally disrupt multiple industries if we can figure out how to heal cracks in metal for a certain cost, and the amount of energy we use will be substantially lower than the energy used rebuilding the whole thing from scratch.

“So now we have things like additive manufacturing that can make us think about how to fill cracks in metal that we wouldn’t have thought of before.
“We’ve got other ways to add molecules whether to metals or plastics. So, where most people would have said, ‘oh we just make the thing over again for 82,000 dollars’, now we can fix it for 100 dollars or 1000 dollars.

“So, it seems disruptive, it seems impossible, but as long as you’re not breaking the laws of physics, don’t count it out.”


The telephone displacing the telegraph and mass-produced cars from Henry Ford’s assembly line displacing the horse and buggy are classic examples of disruptive innovation from long before the term was coined.

More recent examples:

  • Digital photography, revolutionizing the way we create images and largely wiping out film photography
    • The computer
    • Data Analytics
    • The Google search engine
    • The internet, disrupting newspapers and many other products
    • Social media, perhaps disrupting society as a whole.


Surace says he never stops thinking about all the places we can be disruptive in every part of our lives. He believes that remanufacturing is a big part of this conversation.

Inside the remanufacturing industry itself, the disruptive power of AI and
robotics may be the answer to some of remanufacturing’s greatest challenges, starting with taking over functions currently hampered by workforce shortages. More generally, there will be new demands for remanufacturing as industries are disrupted.


Remanufacturing is likely to be part of the business model in the advent of driverless vehicles – a whole new way of disruption, according to Surace. The car business, where people own or lease their own cars, will transition to an on-demand transport business, resulting in high utilization rates, 80-90 percent fewer vehicles – all electric – on the road, and dramatically lowered cost per driven mile or kilometer.

Some auto companies will disappear, and with little down time, each vehicle will be driving more than 100,000 miles per year and more than a million miles in its lifetime.

“So, all of a sudden,” Surace said, “there will be new opportunities to remanufacture parts that need to last a million miles.”


After decades of leading the charge, Surace says he has learned not to rely on government action or idealism to drive progress.

“Everything shouldn’t be driven by economics,” he said.” But I am no longer as stupid as I might have once been, to think that people are going to do anything that isn’t economically viable. Companies don’t. People don’t. That’s why we have to figure out from the start how we make doing something more profitable than not doing it. Remanufacturing a product and getting someone to pay you almost the same money the second time when you didn’t have to make it from scratch, that’s fantastic.

Rochester Conference Preview, Reman World October 2019 issue

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