Back in February the Bit by Bit team responded to an EPSRC call for expressions of interest on the theme of the circular economy. As we’d been looking at sustainability issues connected to 3D printing we thought that this would be an excellent call to enable us to advance research in this area. However we knew that we couldn’t do the work alone and so coordinated a research proposal with Fiona Charnley at Cranfield University, Martin Baumers at the University of Nottingham, and Alysia Garmulewicz and Felix Reed-Tsochas at the University of Oxford, and with industrial support from Jonathan Rowley at Digits2Widgets, Scott Knowles at Fila-Cycle, and Phil Brown at the HSSMI.
Unfortunately our expression of interest wasn’t taken to the next stage of the proposal process. Despite this disappointment, the group was convinced of the importance of this work and so we’ve continued to work together, synthesizing our knowledge and perspectives from across our disciplines in a research paper “Unlocking value for a circular economy through 3D printing: a research agenda“. We’ve submitted this paper to the journal, Technological Forecasting & Social Change, and hope that the research agenda it outlines can provide a platform for other researchers to build on.
The circular economy (CE) aims to radically improve resource efficiency by eliminating the concept of waste and leading to a shift away from the linear take-make-waste model. In a CE, resources are flowing in a circular manner either in a biocycle (biomass) or technocycle (inorganic materials). While early studies indicate that 3D printing (3DP) holds substantial promise for sustainability and the creation of a CE, there is no guarantee that it will do so. There is great uncertainty regarding whether the current trajectory of 3DP adoption is creating more circular material flows or if it is leading to an alternative scenario in which less eco-efficient localised production, demands for customised goods, and a higher rate of product obsolescence combine to bring about increased resource consumption. It is critical that CE principles are embedded into the new manufacturing system before the adoption of 3DP reaches a critical inflection point in which negative practices become entrenched. This paper, authored by both academic and industry experts, proposes a research agenda to determine enablers and barriers for 3DP to achieve a CE. We explore the two following overarching questions to discover what specific issues they entail: (1) How can a more distributed manufacturing system based on 3DP create a circular economy of closed-loop material flows? (2) What are the barriers to a circular 3D printing economy? We specifically examine six areas—design, supply chains, information flows, entrepreneurship, business models and education—with the aim of formulating a research agenda to enable 3DP to reach its full potential for a CE.