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3D Printing & The Circular Economy

What with last week’s World Economic Forum at Davos, there’s been quite a lot in the news about the circular economy. Did you know that January 24th was Circular Electronics Day? Nope. Neither did we.

Reusing, recycling and minimising waste is on everyone’s minds. By its very nature, Additive Manufacturing has huge potential to reduce the intensive consumption of both energy and materials. One of the most obvious benefits of AM, is the efficient use of materials and minimal waste compared with traditional, subtractive manufacturing methods.

But it’s not just about the waste. In a circular economy, the materials used are maintained in a closed loop. A product is made and used, then instead of being thrown away, its materials are recovered to be used once more in new products. Historically, business models are all about the first two steps. And that’s where we have a problem. Changing business models that are hundreds of years old is not easy. This interview with Gregory Unruh of George Mason University and an expert on sustainable business strategy, however, makes some nice points as to why the disruptive force that is 3D printing could be the ideal instigator for change.

“But what you really need is a disruptive business model transformation, and disruptive technology…3D printing could become the foundational infrastructure for a circular economy”.

Unruh argues that because 3D printing primarily uses a single material to manufacture the bulk of a product, this makes it so much easier to recycle back into the system once the useful life of that product is at its end. And the use of electricity has the potential to give 3D printing “power autonomy” – by running solely on renewable energy.

This article in 3D Print.com points out that the localised production offered by AM affords natural transparency and better control over waste streams. It goes on to say, however, that the 3D printing world is still operating within a linear mindset of production: “This refers to how we create a product through design and then send it out for use by an individual.”

Recognising potential benefits is one thing. Realising them and breaking old habits is another.

Last year, as part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circular Economy 100 platform, HP, Teleplan, IKEA, Philips and iFixit began collaborating on a year-long project exploring new applications of 3D printing technology.

This was good to hear. Especially the fact that HP are involved. We love our HP Multi Jet Fusion 4200. It’s a busy and versatile machine. (On the waste reduction front, we also like it because it reuses powder from each build cycle). Just the last few months have seen us print the following:

  • Functional working parts for an automotive company
  • Components for a fashion and fitness brand
  • Pieces that will work hand-in-hand with traditional crafts for a well-known visitor attraction brand
  • Product design prototypes
  • Pneumatic valve housings
  • Bespoke connection nodes for an architectural structure, each one of which is different
  • An architectural model
  • Parts for a creative artist-led project
  • Light fixtures

Take those pneumatic valve housings. Traditionally, these would be injection moulded in large batches. Inflexibility is inherent in this process: besides the materials and tooling, there’s the necessary commitment to quantity. Historically, our client would have to second guess their requirement for the next twelve months – in this case, around 1200 pieces per year. They’d foot the cost up front then potentially see their investment sitting on the shelf until the need for each part arose. Ever responsive, 3D printing allows them to order prints on demand, as and when the part is needed. And it’s quick. And it also allows for changes of design along the way. It ‘takes the guesswork out of manufacturing’. Not quite circular, but responsive. And surely that’s heading in the right direction?

It’s not just about how we manufacture new stuff. What about repairing the stuff we already have? Back to that Ellen MacArthur Foundation collaboration. One of the parties involved is iFixit, a global community organisation on a mission, to ‘fight for the right to repair’. This Greenbiz article, written by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Joe Iles, looks at the idea of 3D printing spare parts on demand but also at the production of spares. “If a customer can’t get spare parts, even a small malfunction can mean a product is destined for the dump.”

iFixit founder Kyle Wiens:

"Repair represents 3 percent of employment, but growth is often stymied by the logistical complexities of planning for and distributing service parts. On-demand production of spares would change the game."

On demand production of spares - what better fit than 3D Printing. And the collaboration’s ‘Dare to Repair’ competition is a case in point. The winner? A Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 LCD Hinge Cover Replacement. Have a look here. How one tiny, vulnerable part could render a $600 camera useless. And how one, small, well considered 3D printed part solved the problem.

Reuse, repair, recycle and minimise waste, but we also need to change the way businesses operate and change the way we think.

A while back, we blogged about Generative Design and quoted a TCT interview with Stu Pann, HP’s Head of Supply Chain. When developing their MJF technology, they wanted to see how many plastic parts inside their printer could, in fact, be printed themselves. Pann predicted three or four. The reality was sixty. “I was trying to be imaginative and I wasn’t even close” he says.

Driving real change needs organisations to join forces to close that manufacturing circle. We also need to broaden our minds to a new way of doing things. Which might take more imagination than we're used to using...

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