Why 3D printing is key to sustainable business

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Sustainability has become crucial to brand reputation and longevity and one key way to achieve sustainability goals over the next decade will be to embrace 3D printing, says Marga Hoek

Originally published 13 July 2020.

The current pandemic may prove to be the tipping point for sustainable business.

Businesses all over the world have chosen to put purpose before profit in response to the crisis. Whether by reserving shopping hours for the elderly, donating millions of pounds worth of hand sanitiser or topping up furloughed staff’s pay, these companies have been applauded for doing their bit.

Increasingly, sustainability is becoming crucial to a brand’s reputation and longevity. So how can brands become more sustainable? One key way to achieve this over the next decade will be to embrace 3D printing.

3D printing is one of the major emerging technologies business can use for good. Switching traditional manufacturing processes to additive manufacturing (3D printing) has the potential to significantly reduce the impact manufacturing has on the planet – while having the added bonus of also being good for the bottom line.  

This technology is already changing business models, but it has the potential to do way more than this. Until recently, the industry model for manufacturing was that the lowest-cost manufacturing was large, mass manufacturing in countries with cheap labour costs. 3D printing is changing this. It was first adopted within some industries in the 80s but it wasn’t until the 2010s, when the patent expired on the first type of 3D printers, that its growth accelerated. Within the next five years the 3D printing market is expected to be worth over $63 billion USD.

Originally, additive manufacturing was used mainly to create prototypes quickly and cheaply. However, we’re now seeing a shift towards this method being used for manufacturing mass products. That’s where it has the power to transform business models. The massive technological advancements that have taken place mean this tech now has the potential to disrupt the manufacturing industry across almost every sector – from food to aerospace – and replace traditional manufacturing methods. It’s also cheap. You can now purchase a 3D printer for as little as $250 USD.

This shift to additive manufacturing is good for people, the planet and for businesses’ bottom line. Let’s take a look at why it’s so transformative.

Good for people and the planet

In 2015 the UN set out 17 goals for sustainable development (SDGs). 3D printing can simultaneously help businesses achieve five of these goals:

SDG 1: No poverty

3D printing hugely reduces the cost of buying products and components. It also enables cheaper and easier repairs, through localised, cheap production of spare parts.

SDG 2: Zero hunger

Research suggests that humans waste approximately $1 trillion worth of food across the world annually.

Additive manufacturing reduces the quantity of food that is wasted during production, helping to lower costs and increase availability. It also offers greater accessibility to foods and has the potential to help feed the hungry in developing countries. NASA, for instance, is developing a 3D food printer that produces meals from powdered proteins, carbohydrates, macronutrients, and micronutrients.

SDG 3: Good health and wellbeing

3D printing is a largely untapped market for healthcare currently but it has huge potential to transform the quality and accessibility of healthcare around the world. It can provide access to customised medical devices and prosthetics, improving the quality and comfort for users while reducing the costs of manufacturing them. It can also be used to manufacture internal organs, meaning patients would no longer need to wait for a suitable donor.

SDG 8: Decent work and economic growth

This new technology enables localised production as never before, reducing shipping costs and enabling products to be made available in places to which they wouldn’t usually be possible to transport. This stimulates economic activity – increasing consumption and production.

SDG 9: Industry, innovation and infrastructure

Another benefit, is the way it can improve the share of GDP that is derived from an industry, by allowing more economies access to the tools necessary to manufacture complex products. It also increases access for small scale producers – by making the capital cost of manufacturing complex products lower. Furthermore, it boosts innovation – enabling more intricate designs and encouraging innovation in the materials used to create a product.

SDG 11: Sustainable cities and production

A shift towards localised production would reduce transport needs and therefore pollution.

SDG 12: Responsible consumption and productions

Because of its structural profile and its closed-loop process that is additive rather than reductive, 3D printing produces less waste during production. It also promotes the use of local products and the recycling of materials to create new products.

Good for business

Additive manufacturing is as good for business as it is for the planet.


3D printing enables you to turn a concept into reality faster than you can imagine. Its flexible nature means that businesses can rapidly develop prototypes during the development phase and then reconfigure existing equipment to manufacture new products quickly and easily.


This innovative technology enables businesses to design, produce, and sell unique personalised products at a low cost. As products can be built so quickly and cheaply, 3D printing has the potential to alter entire economies of scale. This is game-changing both for existing business and for start-ups. It can also help business to serve more local markets around the globe, that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to transport products to.

The proof is in the pudding

This technology has the ability to disrupt sectors across the board. So how is 3D printing already helping companies to become more sustainable, efficient and innovative?

The aerospace industry is a brilliant example to look at. It was one of the first industries to embrace the technology and it demonstrates the transformative impact additive manufacturing can have.

At the forefront of research and development, this sector has initiated a growing focus on the materials used in additive manufacturing – from just plastics to include metallic material, paving the way for new opportunities. In late 2018, Airbus and Boeing both cited a backlog of approximately 7,000 aircraft.

The mass production capabilities of 3D printing, including the reduction in production time, can help companies such as these speed up the process. Within the traditional process, clearing this backlog would take the equivalent of nine years of production. But additive manufacturing could cut this time in half.

In aircraft design, there are numerous internal parts that are costly and time-consuming to manufacture and have been done so using traditional metalworking. Additive manufacturing simplifies the process and is particularly useful in producing engine and turbine parts, cabin interior components and parts with defined aerodynamic properties. In fact, it can reduce time-to-market by 64%. It also has the potential to lighten an aircraft by 55%.

The Boeing 737-800, an average-sized plane flown by many popular commercial airlines, weighs 90,000 pounds (excluding fuel and passengers), but a reduction of 55% would bring it down to a little over 40,000 pounds. Since the weight of an aircraft directly correlates with its fuel consumption over the useful life of the airframe, this will decrease the amount of fuel planes consume and lessen their impact on the environment – increasing the sustainability of the aerospace industry, while making the manufacturing process more efficient.

This is just one example, of how additive manufacturing is transforming an industry. But, over the next ten years, we’ll see this expanding into almost every manufacturing sector – and the results will be incredibly powerful, both for business and the planet.

Marga Hoek is a global thought-leader on sustainable business, international speaker and the author of The Trillion Dollar Shift, a new book revealing the business opportunities provided by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The Trillion Dollar Shift is published by Routledge, in hardback and e-book. For more information go to www.margahoek.com

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