What is the advantage of combining additive manufacturing and circular economy?
I personally think that the main advantage of additive manufacturing towards a sustainable industrial system is that companies can set up localized productions shifting from centralized systems. This is very interesting from an industrial point of view as companies can reduce inventories and transportation costs as well as emissions, while from a customer point of view, they can access customized products in reduced time. An example of this application is represented by the vintage car business. The main problem in that market is that when a specific spare part is needed, customers have to search worldwide (often online), to access the desired components and that is time consuming. So, the solution could be the adoption of additive manufacturing, allowing companies to move from a model based on product storage to one based on design storage. For optimum results, companies could use 3D printers in sharing with other organizations, and offer printing services in cities, thus moving away from one industrial site serving the world to small localized “plants” (i.e. glocal concept). This process results in less costs, time and more customization.
Additive manufacturing has the potential to offer many economic, environmental, and technical advantages compared to traditional manufacturing approaches such as machining. This includes reducing production costs, times, and waste, while creating the ability to optimize objects and production flexibility.
What are the main challenges facing Imperial College in this regard?
The Engineering School is actively involved in additive manufacturing for circular economy and it has invested a huge amount of money in order to make additive manufacturing an accessible technology for local communities. Imperial College White City Campus (https://www.imperial.ac.uk/white-city-campus/) was built with this in mind and is bringing together scientific researchers, corporate partners, entrepreneurs and the local community to co-exist and co-create on an unprecedented scale, turning cutting-edge scientific research into real-world benefits for society. Imperial College White City hosts an important new center for 3D printing research and outreach.
White City’s Invention Rooms are home to the Reach Out Makerspace and Imperial College Advanced Hackspace where local people and entrepreneurs can create using 3D printers and other tools. Also located at the White City Campus is the Translation & Innovation Hub (I-HUB). This is an incubator where companies work alongside researchers to develop concepts into final products, often 3D printing prototypes. Therefore, students, researchers, industries and communities can transform their ideas into reality.
Additionally, an important social aspect of White City Campus is to make communities more knowledgeable about the use of new technologies. What is surprising is that so far cities such as London, San Francisco or Shanghai have missed the opportunity to invest in this localized concept which, would be both useful for its citizens and the environment as only products that are needed would be printed. I think that more research should be conducted to understand why these opportunities have been missed. Is it an investment, a matter of scale or a technology problem?