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3D printing shapes circularity

A technology which is constantly growing in many production environments and that can ensure considerable savings in terms of materials.

by Davide Perillo
14 December 2020
9 min read
by Davide Perillo
14 December 2020
9 min read

And the winner was a spare part for a camera. It’s tiny, just two centimetres by less than one centimetre. You use it to put the battery in, but in the original it often broke, meaning you had to chuck the reflex away. That is, until Anthony Kouttron, an electronic engineer, came up with a prototype. It was an identical piece, perfectly interchangeable with the branded one but more durable. And it was homemade, with a 3D printer.

Homemade spare parts

Kouttron took home the gold. But on the podium at Dare to Repair, a mega-competition launched in 2018 by HP (the multinational producer of printers and PCs) and iFixit (a global portal with repair manuals for everything) there was also a set of levers and spare buttons for prams, and a spacer to make drawers slide more easily, all of them printed. And in a way they are a perfect testimony to how the economy is becoming more circular, thanks to what until a few years ago seemed like science fiction but is now almost available to everyone: 3D printing. The dynamics are the same as in traditional printing (you have a computer, a software and a network). The big difference is that the printers vary hugely in size. And instead of paper with words on it, you see materials of all kinds and objects of all sizes churning out –the bolt for a wheel, the body of a car, the brick in a wall, the pin for a rudder or the entire keel of a boat. Then you have precision parts, spare parts and stocks– all the things you need to extend objects’ lives after they break, perhaps after many years, when you can’t find the original replacement parts any more. This is something that supports but also goes beyond the regeneration we’ve been seeing for a while, the resurrection of old PCs and mobile phones given up for dead. They call it remanufacturing. Its strong point is obvious: it lets you recycle things rather than throwing them away, and what’s more, get them back into circulation, with a qualitative leap proportional to the amount of parts that are reproduced. “A refurbished engine, for example, might be equivalent to one in excellent working condition but has already been in service for 30,000 miles, while a remanufactured engine should be equivalent to one that has not yet been in service, so it is like new,” explained Nabil Nasr, who heads the sustainability department at the Rochester Institute of Technology, to The New York Times. “Remanufacturing is a smart way to continue to advance without creating a lot of waste.” In some cases, in fact, it can also be a leap forward, because a redesigned piece – maybe redesigned with a bit of innovation and freshly printed– can bring the whole technology up to date.

Waste-free production

But new things must also be deployed in the fight against waste. A 3D printer is an additive manufacturer by trade: it adds things. It stacks layers of material with millimetric precision, following instructions from software. It’s the antithesis of traditional manufacturing, which usually starts from a block of metal or other material and shapes it, leaving shavings, filings and what have you. But this new manufacturing leaves zero rubbish, or almost none. Add to that on-site printing, which cuts storage and transport costs (and the related pollution), and you can see why Lou Rassey, CEO of Fast Radius (a Chicago-based company among the most forward in encouraging innovation) told Greenbiz.com: “Throughout human history we have had three means to move things from one side of the world to the other –land, sea and air. Now we have a fourth– the net. And at the speed of light.” 

An impressive growth

This is reason enough to explain a boom, held back only by the pandemic. In fact, some people think they might even benefit from a situation where the physical movement of goods is slowed down. Producing them more or less by themselves could solve a lot of problems. Since 2015, the 3D printing market has grown at a rate of up to 26% annually. In April 2019 Statista, a research company, predicted an increase to $26.2 billion by 2022, with a surge not only in products and hardware but also in software development. Of course, these were pre-Covid estimates. But that’s the trend, and it’s a marked one. It’s enough to make the Remanufacturing European Network, a product of the European Commission, state that in 10 years’ time it could be almost €90 billion, in part because the fields of application are practically infinite. In the same article in The New York Times, Derrick Gaddis, who owns a timber company in Illinois, tells how a previously unobtainable spare part, reprinted in 3D, gave new life to the truck-mounted cranes he uses to move logs. He compared it to “tak[ing] a puzzle apart with... many pieces”. To achieve this, he relied on a company (CoreCentric Solutions, in Carol Stream, a suburb of Chicago) that already churns out 2 million parts a year for all kinds of machinery.

Printable ideas

But some people use 3D to build buildings. Like Gaia, who created the first house “printed in raw earth” using a technology for circular houses, igloo-like structures that are modular, insulated and extremely sustainable. The raw material, in fact, is the same earth dug for the house’s foundations. That means zero waste and zero environmental costs. The costs could potentially be very low when the technology is fully operational, too. It’s ideal for creating more comfortable environments in parts of the world where building a house from bricks or more polluting materials is still a utopia. There are also start-ups, like the all-Italian Krill Design, that use food waste (peelings, fruit seeds, even coffee) to build stools, knick-knacks and artwork, like the Leonardesque icosahedron exhibited at Mudec in Milan exactly one year ago. They are dried, pulverised, treated, and look very similar to plastic but are in fact organic. “We produce to the end customer’s demands, cutting transport, customs and warehouse costs,” explained Ivan Calimani, CEO of the company. Krill Design has signed an agreement with Autogrill, the Italian motorway services company, to turn waste orange juice into containers for sugar sachets. And again, they will be printed in 3D.


An employee works to build a 3D printed social housing building using a construction 3D printing technique.

From Earth to space

The most promising sectors may be nautical (think of the benefit of having a tool on board to make a piece that has broken in the middle of the ocean), automotive and aeronautical, where 3D printing could mean enormous savings, but even the space industry is turning a keen eye to this technology. A few months ago at the International Space Station, where crews from many countries take turns to do hundreds of experiments, they needed an Allen key. So, NASA e-mailed one over and it was printed on board. “In conditions like those, 3D printing reduces risk, cuts costs and increases efficiency”, said Niki Werkheiser, one of the project managers at the US Marshall Space Center. But for long-term missions, like to Mars I mean, it would be indispensable.”

Anti-waste prototypes

But let’s be clear; we are not talking about intervening after the fact, when the damage is done. Technology and sensors now also make it possible to monitor machinery and see which components are wearing out, before the fact. Preventing trouble, but above all generating huge savings when it comes to testing. And therein lies 3D printing’s other great waste-saving strength: rather than making entire prototypes, trying them out and discarding them as you get closer to the desired result, you can gradually print the details that need perfecting. At DARPA, the American company that comes up with technologies for the military, they launched an open manufacturing project to exchange data on the physics of materials and how they react to production processes. “So we can rapidly predict... how the finished part will perform”, Mick Maher, head of the programme, told The Recycler. He says that the alternative saves money and time. It saves on something else too. “3D printers use primarily one material to produce the bulk of an object”, as Gregory Unruh, professor of Leadership at George Mason University, explains in an interview in the University of California’s online magazine. That’s “the beauty of 3D printing... if you look at a conventionally manufactured automobile, there’s 10,000 different components made from hundreds of different materials. In contrast, a company called Local Motors 3D prints 80% of its cars from a single material.” His conclusion? “I had been looking at 3D printing as a potential disruptive technology, thinking that 3D printing could become the foundational infrastructure for a circular economy. And in the last couple years, with the emergence of inexpensive 3D printers... it’s really started to take off.”

A pink future

Of course, there are still plenty of limits, for instance in materials. Recycled plastic can be recycled so many times that you can’t use it, because it still presents problems of homogeneity. But the other side of the coin is that raw materials you would never have imagined end up in 3D printers –sawdust, rice flour, nutshells– and with excellent results. And that’s why people are investing, in cars and in projects. Like the Circular Economy 100 Platform, created by a consortium of companies (Philips, HP, IKEA and many others) together with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, just to explore the potential of 3D printing. Its aim? To assess the effect of spare parts on production. Huge savings for the DIY companies. And for the world, it would be a breath of fresh air.