Industry Trends

How digital manufacturing contributes to the circular economy

By July 7, 2020
circular economy scaled

The circular economy is an alternative to the linear economy, in which resources are extracted, used, and promptly discarded. The circular economy, on the other hand, disassociates economic growth from finite resource constraints and value creation from consumption, instead finding value throughout the continued lifecycle of a product. 

The goal is to eliminate waste by monetizing it. If manufacturing companies see their products and their waste as valuable inventory, they’ll use their resources more efficiently and uncover new ways to increase value and meet customer demand. In fact, research from McKinsey indicates that the transition to a circular economy could generate almost $2 trillion in revenue per year by 2030. 

Still, inverting entire industries’ outlooks on value and the economy isn’t easy. Digital manufacturing is a central change driver needed to shift toward a circular economy in three major ways. 

Balancing supply and demand through agility

To produce less waste from the outset, manufacturers should strive to balance supply with demand. The traditional manufacturing model, in which manufacturers estimate customer demand based on projections, makes this challenging. If a company overestimates demand it may end up with a warehouse of un-recyclable, unsold products that will just end up in a landfill. What’s more, this method is not agile enough to account for the volatility of the on-demand economy

Digital manufacturing makes use of agile technologies to bring supply and demand into harmony. Digital manufacturing refers to the application of computer systems to the manufacturer’s supply chain, products, and processes. From a supply-demand perspective, digital manufacturing allows manufacturers to use customer data to better anticipate demand and produce only what they need when they need it. 

When manufacturers can make products on-demand, they avoid the high initial costs of a traditional production line and enhance their ability to respond nimbly to demand. When manufacturers can print parts near their customers, they also dramatically shorten their supply chains. Since the average supply chain accounts for more than 80% of a consumer product company’s carbon emissions and 90% of the impact on natural resources, more efficient supply chains can help materially mitigate negative environmental impacts.

Reducing economic and environmental waste

Recycling, remanufacturing, and reusing products in order to preserve and enhance capital — natural and otherwise  — is the primary thrust behind the circular economy. Getting more value from existing stock reduces structural waste, boosts economic growth, and empowers manufacturers to think outside the box for the greater good. Digital manufacturing, powered by additive manufacturing, helps engineers and product designers make the most of the waste they produce by optimizing material usage.

The use of renewable, recyclable, non-toxic materials in manufacturing is still emerging, but additive manufacturing leads the charge. 3D printing is compatible with biodegradable and bio-based materials like PLA bioplastics, plastics that break down in natural environments and only leave behind biomass, carbon dioxide, and water. Taking advantage of materials that are safe to cycle and designed to cycle is an easy way to contribute to the circular economy and reduce one’s environmental impact.

Even if eco-conscious materials can’t be used with the manufacturing process needed for a project, digital manufacturing alone can help reduce waste and increase profits. To start, there are inherent material savings in additive processes. Instead of machining out of a solid block of material, leading to a lot of scrap, you are building up the material one voxel at a time. The increased design freedom of additive also allows you to take advantage of lattice structures and complex geometry to dramatically lightweight parts. Additionally, manufacturing polymer products with 3D printers can reduce energy consumption by 41 to 64%. Overall, research suggests that 3D printing can reduce manufacturing costs by up to $593 billion by 2025, and critically accelerate time to market. Digital manufacturing supercharges the circular economy by putting more renewable resources into it and maximizing its output. 

Designing with sustainability in mind

The linear economy also impacts product design. For example, mechanical components are primarily designed with manufacturability in mind, not necessarily re-use. This is why some designers join pieces to each other rather than connect them using removable fasteners. However, small design choices like these render the product disposable from the beginning, and greatly limit the product lifecycle.

Designing for the circular economy means creating products that are durable, reusable, and profitable over the long-term — digital manufacturing can help. Digital manufacturing optimizes the design process so manufacturers can maximize value in multiple ways. Virtual modeling makes it easier for product designers to collaborate in real-time and think critically about ways to make a design conducive to reuse, repair, and recycling. Any design changes can be made inexpensively and quickly before production begins, which reduces cost and waste.

Also, since on-demand digital manufacturing is directly in line with customer needs, designers can transition from thinking along the lines of, “How can I make this product manufacturing-friendly?” to, “How can I design this product so it consistently meets end-user needs?” Human-centric design thinking is inherently sustainable, as it leads to products built to generate intuitive, meaningful experiences. Products designed with end-users in mind tend to bring greater value to the end-user, and therefore often enjoy extended lifecycles — which, as a result, ultimately minimizes material and energy waste. 

According to McKinsey’s research, about $2.6 trillion of material in high-turnover consumer goods — about 80% of material value — are discarded and never recovered. If product designers can create products that are built to last or at least built to recycle, they can close the loop and fuel the circular economy.

Close the loop with Fast Radius

Today, at least 97% of all solid waste comes from manufacturing; the sector is long overdue for a sea change. Transitioning from the linear economy to a circular one might seem daunting, but digital manufacturing is disruptive enough to kickstart a more sustainable future. With on-demand digital manufacturing and additive technology, product teams can balance supply and demand, reduce their environmental impact, and create products that are sustainable from the very beginning.

At Fast Radius, we’re passionate about moving the manufacturing industry forward, and sometimes that means going in a circle. We do our part to stimulate the circular economy by offering multi-process, on-demand digital manufacturing services to product teams of all shapes and sizes. By partnering with our customers from concept to delivery, our team of experienced engineers and designers streamline every phase of design and production. We are equipped to manufacture parts of varying geometric complexities, materials, and sizes at scale using the best technologies, and the latest design knowledge. Let’s work together to create better parts and a better world. Contact us today to get started.

For more insights into sustainability in manufacturing and beyond, read related articles in the Fast Radius resource center

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