Sustainability: Can technology make a difference?

When I was growing up I was always taught that even bad events can work out well in the end, providing that people learn from their experiences. 

If there’s a positive to come from the last few years and the Covid pandemic, then surely it’s the fact that when it really mattered people all over the world came together and collaborated to face a life-threatening challenge and achieved in months what normally takes years!

As the UK continues to ease restrictions and focus shifts to other global challenges such as Climate Change we can ask the question;  is there hope that we can apply the same urgency and culture of innovation to these other challenges?

The more I think about the future (having recently become a father for the third time this goes with the territory,) the more I believe we can have an impact if we commit in the same way to finding vaccines! 

Through my work with the CREATE Education project and interaction with our leading universities have shown that there’s an abundance of activities and campaigns being championed. Electrification of the automotive sector is happening at pace, hydrogen solutions in aerospace are rapidly developing not to mention agricultural advancements or sustainable power options like wind/solar. Unfortunately these aren’t my areas of expertise and as such, I can’t offer insight with certainty.


What I am perhaps better placed to comment on is 3D printing or Additive Manufacturing. Can the way we make and transport things help in our drive towards sustainability?

I’m going to highlight some of the opportunities that feel like relatively easy wins.

Please don’t expect calculations and charts. This is my view as a 3D printing company director and as a father, not a research study produced by academics/agencies. The views as always are my own, but they are based on the real examples that I see from industry pioneers on a near-daily basis.

Sustainability in 3D Printing 


Just in time manufacturing has long been aspired to, with the potential benefits much-heralded but what if we look at this from a sustainability perspective? With the significant improvement in 3DP technologies, automation software, and robotics this has now become more feasible particularly if we consider how much mass manufacturing takes place to reach economies of scale and how material and energy-intensive that is. Surely producing locally on demand makes more sense?

If we then start to look at the waste implications from over-production or a ‘throwaway culture’ that is filling landfill sites, which is driven by mass manufacturing volumes, we must use the technology that is now available to limit environmental impact and not let economics overrule!

Continuing along this line of reasoning we can start to think about the impact the logistics and transporting of goods has on our carbon footprint. The amount of vehicles used to get products from manufacturing locations to end customers is huge! Supply chain management often requires stock in hand, which in turn requires large warehousing facilities with more energy consumption etc. Spare parts and components in many instances go unused then are either sold at discount (and the process starts again) or worse sent to waste and not recycled!

Many organisations are waking up to this absurdity and are relying on the improved accuracy of affordable Additive Manufacturing solutions to build digital warehouses rather than physical ones.

By cataloging components and reverse engineering using scanning/software tools companies can now create digital inventories to allow printing locally on demand.

Of course 3d printing has energy/materials requirements but it’s hard to present a case where sharing a digital file and printing on demand has the same environmental impact as physically manufacturing and shipping something.

The mass production and logistics challenges are only a small part of the opportunities provided by advances in technology.

From a design perspective, the leaps in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning are opening up new possibilities and enabling sustainability to be designed in a way not possible previously. Generative Design uses algorithms to optimise parts for set criteria. Design for Additive Manufacturing (DfAM) is becoming more critical as we look to unlock the hardware/ material potential.

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If we look at design software such as Autodesk Fusion 360 they now incorporate Generative Design democratising access to the benefits of machine learning. Are we going to use this software to improve profitability or sustainability?

The exciting element is if we embrace these new technological tools we are able to solve problems differently. Nature has had the benefit of evolution to solve problems and biomimicry is becoming more and more viable from an engineering perspective. Think how much light-weighting could be done on transportation globally and the reduction on fuel consumption that would result from that.

Sustainability - can technology make a difference

I use this image in all my presentations as it illustrates this point fantastically. The biomimetic spindly table legs in the foreground have the same load-bearing capabilities as those huge chunks of material at the back! What’s more they were 3D printed on-site and as a bonus are more aesthetically pleasing.

Performance, beauty and sustainability, who doesn’t want more of that?

The opportunity for Additive Manufacturing to be part of a sustainability drive is clear, why then is it not further on?

Now is not the time for politics and economics so let’s focus on the technical. A lot of industries are regulated and have standards and requirements that components must adhere too. Additive Manufacturing, particularly in metal, has spent years moving towards acceptable tolerances, A-class finishes and full densification of parts so that they can meet the certification standards. 

Recent developments in Hybrid Manufacturing techniques such as those offered by MELTIO give a clear pathway to safely removing these barriers. Rather than attempting to capitalise on reducing the complexity of parts or unique geometries, MELTIO offers more sustainable production via Near Net Shape manufacturing.

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In traditional subtractive techniques you start with a billet of material and then remove the surplus often as waste. By printing using MELTIO the fundamental shape of the component is printed first and then traditional technologies are used only for final finishing. This means the tolerances, finishes and incumbent standards can be met with huge economic and, more importantly, sustainability benefits!

People instinctively understand using less material and wasting less is beneficial, what should be added to the equation is the reduction in tool wear (another supply chain!), and the reduction in power consumption thanks to reduced processing time at the finishing stage.

This technology is affordable and demonstrates a clear ROI and, factoring in governmental “green” incentives, offers decision-makers a viable route with few barriers to achieving sustainability goals without too much deviation from ‘business as usual.’

We have talked about being smarter with materials throughout this but what about the materials themselves? The rise in the popularity of 3D printing has unquestionably made more polymers and composites accessible enabling more functional applications to be produced locally on demand. Combining software, hardware and materials in a user-friendly way reduces trial and error eliminating waste from the printing process and encouraging people to identify applications with confidence rather than defaulting to less sustainable practices.

New super materials like Graphene unlock mind-bending opportunities to rethink how we design and manufacture solutions and Additive Manufacturing is a suitable technique for many novel applications. Watch this space!

Our mindset is what will determine the success of using technologies to improve sustainability.

It’s clear we have a huge chance to utilise industry 4.0 technologies to reduce human impact on the environment but people will have to drive the change and share their successes to inspire others. Thinking in Circular Economy principles should become the new norm.

One of my favourite examples of this in the public domain is KLM. The Dutch airline now collects the wastewater bottles from their flights and recycles it as filament for use on Ultimaker 3D printers.

This circular idea can be applied across industries and shows how innovation and sustainability can go hand in hand.

Increasing amounts of research is being done into how natural waste such as egg shells, orange peel or coffee grounds can be used instead of plastics to make components. We ran a workshop and I couldn’t help but envision a world where my children could turn their waste into everyday items using technology!

Hopefully by now you believe like I do that technology can play a huge part in tackling some of the climate challenges we face. It is not a silver bullet and ultimately what will determine whether we reach our sustainability goals is US!

We must educate each other on best practices and share the breakthroughs. Government green incentives and mandates like Right to Repair are a starting point but won’t achieve anything unless we all make sustainability a priority.

People are the most critical part of all of this. Technology can only save us if we choose to embrace it and if we choose to solve the problems we face in a different way. Given the tools that we now have access to, combined with incorporating design circular thinking into our products and working collaboratively, we can make this happen!

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