• Industry must work to mitigate its impact on stakeholders and the environment.
  • New technologies like 3D printing can make the additive manufacturing industry more sustainable.
  • The World Economic Forum’s Advanced Manufacturing and Production Initiative is identifying the companies leading Industry 4.0 and a new world of sustainable manufacturing.

The way we make things is changing. But the Fourth Industrial Revolution isn’t solely about how new manufacturing technologies, like 3D printing, will benefit companies and consumers. It's also about how industry can usher in a cleaner, more sustainable world.

It’s foolish to deny the planet is rapidly approaching the day when the consequences of climate change will be unavoidable. The question now facing many business leaders is whether – and how – we can both continue to build value for our shareholders and mitigate our impact on the natural world.

To find those answers, the World Economic Forum’s Advanced Manufacturing and Production Initiative has worked over the past year to address issues ranging from using data to foster innovation, to supporting the adoption of inclusive technologies.

Global companies will increasingly reap the rewards of a more flexible and automated manufacturing ecosystem – enabled, in part, by technologies like 3D printing. My company, Desktop Metal, and the additive manufacturing industry in general, have a role to play in helping customers utilize these technologies to create a positive impact on the community at large.

Here are four ways Industry 4.0 can manufacture a more sustainable world.

1. Tooling-free manufacturing, without scrap

Tooling may have helped make the modern industrial age possible, but eliminating it produces many positive impacts – reduced lead times, lower part costs and decreased warehouse overhead – in addition to mitigating the environmental impacts of manufacturing.

Without the need for tooling, manufacturers can eliminate portions of the complex web that sends parts and products around the world. Instead, only raw materials – metal powders that can be densely packed – will be shipped, creating a far more efficient supply chain.

Parts, meanwhile, will be sent across borders as digital files, and only downloaded and printed when and where they’re needed.

Powder-metallurgy-based additive processes also enable near 100% use of raw materials with little waste or scrap, making it a green and highly circular technology.

By moving manufacturing closer to consumers, powder-metallurgy-based additive technology not only reduces the environmental impact of transporting materials and parts over long distances, but also can dramatically level the playing field, allowing small companies around the globe to compete with large manufacturers to produce parts customized for local markets.

Circular economy

What is a circular economy?

The global population is expected to reach close to 9 billion people by 2030 – inclusive of 3 billion new middle-class consumers.This places unprecedented pressure on natural resources to meet future consumer demand.

A circular economy is an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design. It replaces the end-of-life concept with restoration, shifts towards the use of renewable energy, eliminates the use of toxic chemicals and aims for the elimination of waste through the superior design of materials, products, systems and business models.

Nothing that is made in a circular economy becomes waste, moving away from our current linear ‘take-make-dispose’ economy. The circular economy’s potential for innovation, job creation and economic development is huge: estimates indicate a trillion-dollar opportunity.

The World Economic Forum has collaborated with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation for a number of years to accelerate the Circular Economy transition through Project MainStream - a CEO-led initiative that helps to scale business driven circular economy innovations.

Join our project, part of the World Economic Forum’s Shaping the Future of Environment and Natural Resource Security System Initiative, by contacting us to become a member or partner.

2. Consolidating assembly

Another benefit of additive manufacturing is assembly consolidation, or the combining of several parts into fewer, multi-functional assemblies. This curtails environmental impacts, too.

With fewer parts to transport, the process can make shipping networks more efficient, significantly reducing CO2 emissions.

In most cases, combining multiple parts also results in significant cost and weight savings. As one example, Optisys engineers were able to reduce the components in a Ka band antenna from 100 to 1.

Assembly consolidation is another way manufacturing can be more sustainable.

Though the geometric flexibility of 3D printing makes it possible to create complex, multi-functional parts, the additive manufacturing industry is still in its infancy when it comes to manufacturing production parts.

In part, that’s because the story of the additive industry is really one of three distinct growth curves. The first, beginning in the early 1990s, largely focused on research and development of the new additive technology.

Today, the industry stands at the start of a new S-curve, which will see wider adoption of 3D printing for manufacturing, forever changing the way products are made.

The new additive manufacturing industry's S-curve

As the industry continues to evolve in the coming decades, it will eventually reach the next curve, where companies print complete products using multiple materials, further reducing environmental impacts.

3. Generative design

The geometric flexibility that comes with 3D printing also opens the door to an entirely new class of design, which uses artificial intelligence and takes inspiration from nature.

Using new generative design tools, engineers outline where a part should exist, what forces are acting upon it and delineate areas to avoid. The rest is up to a computer.

The end results are fully optimized parts as much as 50% lighter than conventional designs, without sacrificing performance.

By making such parts possible, 3D printing uses fewer raw materials. It can be used to manufacture lightweight components for everything from cars to airplanes, resulting in lower carbon emissions.

4. Circular manufacturing and new polymers

With nearly infinite reusability, 3D printed metal parts have begun to open the door to the notion of a circular manufacturing process in which products are designed to fit into sustainable loops, where components can be reused again and again.

Metals, however, aren’t the only material used in modern manufacturing.

In an effort to reduce plastic waste, a number of researchers are developing advanced polymers like polyhydroxyalkanoate, or PHA, which can be broken down in soil, compost and marine sediment. These are far more environmentally friendly, and a natural fit for a more circular economy.

Building communities for the future

None of these benefits, however, exist in a vacuum – and none of the effects of climate change can be reversed by any one company.

Going forward, my company and others will work to strengthen ties across that network and share best practices as we try to bring the future of manufacturing and production to fruition – and ensure that future looks bright for as many people as possible.