Bryan Crutchfield is Vice President and General Manager, North America for Materialise, a global leader in 3D printing.
In an era where sustainability is on everyone’s mind, companies and entire industries are rushing to self-promote their sustainable nature and intentions. While this is certainly a positive evolution, we must ask the tough questions and consider if what we call “sustainable” is truly sustainable or just the result of an established notion or belief.
For example, electric cars generally are better for the environment than traditional gas-powered cars, and as a result, electric car manufacturers are often viewed as sustainable companies. But is a company sustainable simply because it builds electric cars? If you’re driving your electric vehicle in the U.S., 79% of the electricity you’re using is from petroleum, natural gas or coal. And then there’s the issue of reuse or disposal of battery waste.
Let’s switch industries. In the manufacturing industry, 3-D printing allows companies to manufacture in a more sustainable way by creating less waste and providing local, decentralized production. As a result, many view 3-D printing as a positive force that helps companies operate more sustainably.
Results from a survey by my company showed that 76% of manufacturers find 3-D printing to be a more sustainable way to manufacture products than conventional manufacturing technologies. But should we consider 3-D printing a green technology simply because of the unique benefits that are inherent to the technology? Perhaps this is too self-serving and frankly, too easy.
Recently, BASF and my company collaborated on a lifecycle analysis for the production of 1 million pairs of 3-D printed midsoles for the footwear market. While, today, 3-D printing typically offers advantages for smaller or customized series for local production, through this LCA, we found that, for large series of identical products, 3-D printing is currently not the most sustainable choice.
The Right Question
But companies shouldn’t remain stuck in this “yes or no” debate. They need to start asking the right question, which isn’t: “Is the technology sustainable?” Now, the question is: “What can we do to make the technology more sustainable?”
For the electric vehicle industry, this may mean investing in a battery recycling network. For the 3-D printing industry, this could mean developing innovative technologies and solutions to reduce impact. For example, in my own company, we’ve been working on material innovation to eliminate waste in 3-D printing.
The coronavirus pandemic is accelerating the adoption of digital technologies. This creates an opportunity to fast-track technology innovation and drastically rethink the way we develop solutions — not incrementally by simply building on existing technologies and improving them, but by completely rethinking the way we develop new products.
In the aeronautics industry, the pressure of the Covid-19 crisis and the urgency of the climate crisis are incentivizing this industry to fast-track its technology innovation. As a result, Airbus has decided to skip the development of hybrid engines and accelerate the development of Hydrogen-powered planes instead. Similarly, the German government is pushing a breakthrough in green energy through its “National Hydrogen Strategy.” It’s investing 9 billion euros in the ecosystem that will enable the use of hydrogen cells and engines for many applications where standard batteries and electric motors aren’t the best choices.
But no company can do this alone. It requires us to work together with our partners, customers and industry peers to drastically rethink how we develop sustainable solutions and how to take responsibility by asking the right question: What can we do to make technology more sustainable?