2023 3D Printing Predictions: The Future of ESG in AM


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Historically written off as an externality to finance, factors of environment, social, and governance (ESG) have become increasingly important to not only how a business is perceived but how successfully it operates. This is because corporations are becoming more widely recognized as existing within the context of nature and society and the way its workers are treated influences morale, innovation, and more. 

As a comparatively novel technology, additive manufacturing (AM) has the potential to integrate such previously neglected concepts into the foundation of the industry as it gets established.

According to Martijn Joris, Co-founder and Executive Chairman of AM customization software developer Twikit, ESG is becoming a key factor for hiring the best talent, among other things.

“In our industry in general, ESG programs will become more wide-spread, more mature and data-driven. AM is well positioned. As a technology, AM will have a wider (exponential) positive impact on sustainability by empowering other companies to start using it for applications at scale,” Joris said. “It’s also key to have ESG goals in on-boarding the best talent. You get a lot of questions on this when talking with future employees. It’s a selection criterium for people. They want to understand the impact you can make. Also, when talking to investors & funds, you see that ESG has become more widespread. At Twikit, we regularly get questions from this side on how we contribute to the 17 sustainability development goals as set by the United Nations.”

However, just because the generation that is currently building the 3D printing sector is aware of ESG doesn’t mean that it is actively working to address it. 

Whereas there are plenty of companies on the record about nearly every aspect of the AM sector, there is much less information related to ESG. This is particularly true of the “S” and “G” topics. 

3D Printing and the Environment

3D printing is widely touted as a key technology for reducing industrial society’s impact on the environment. This is due to the fact that, in addition to the ability to use only the materials that are required for a given part, AM can produce designs impossible with other technologies. These designs can introduce significant energy savings to various processes, ranging from transferring heat to injecting fuel. Other possibilities, like distributed manufacturing and giving new life to recycled feedstock, could further reduce manufacturing’s impact on the environment. 

Twikit’s Martijn Joris spoke to these types of benefits, saying:

“While I reckon there is work to be done to make usage of additive more sustainable on itself, it has a couple of strong drivers to contribute to sustainability, such as: it’s a more waste-friendly process in the core; it empowers local and on-demand manufacturing through digital chain (eliminating transport); and it enables personalized products, which means inherently better products. E.g. In medical applications, personalized products will result in better treatment. E.g. For consumers applications, customized products will bring better performance and more value for the user. consumers will use them longer instead of buying a new one. At Twikit, these are key drivers for the team in re-thinking how to bring products to the market which are personalized and made locally on-demand. It also drove us to new markets such as medical.”

To help drive these benefits and increase awareness of them beyond the 3D printing industry, organizations like the AM Green Trade Association (AMGTA) are helping to spread the word. AMGTA Executive Director Sherri Monroe explained:

“In 2023 we expect to see increased collaboration in terms of partnerships, research projects, and participation in advocacy groups and trade associations like the AMGTA. Companies are just beginning to understand the power of additive manufacturing beyond the part-for-part manufacturing process, even beyond the re-design and consolidated manufacturing potential which is significant. The ability to additively produce parts – when they’re needed and where they’re needed – to get a factory or container ship or power plant up and running has a sustainability impact that is largely going unrecognized because it likely was not the primary objective at that moment. The AMGTA is identifying and promoting sustainability within the AM community and equally promoting additive manufacturing within the sustainability community to increase acceptance and adoption.”

At the same time, the energy input required to run industrial 3D printers, as well as the effects of some of the technologies and their materials on our ecosystem, are still being studied. For this reason, the AMGTA and others are putting their resources into these topics and more. Monroe said that the group aims to conduct more research into just how sustainable 3D printing is over the next year. 

“More and better life cycle assessments and use-cases will provide the information needed within the AM community and for the broader manufacturing and end-user community. We will be releasing significant research throughout 2023 that will identify sustainability gains, losses and transferrable findings. Our members make this possible through their support and collaborative participation.”

As lifecycle analyses and other studies are conducted to compare AM to traditional manufacturing processes, we are actually learning important details about the technology. For instance, it’s not always a more efficient method of production. Leen Kuijken, Sustainability Manager at Materialise (Nasdaq: MTLS), elaborated:

“Recently, we’ve seen a shift in the common perception that 3D printing represents a more sustainable way to manufacture products. Several LCAs indicate that, in some cases, 3D printing even has a more negative impact on climate change and the depletion of fossil fuels than conventional manufacturing.  This lack of transparency about the true environmental impact of 3D printing has made people question the sustainable nature of the technology. At Materialise, we run one of the largest 3D printing factories in the world and we only receive limited information about the carbon footprint of our feedstock. In 2023, the call for more transparency, especially on CO2 emissions, will increase. Customers now demand information about the environmental impact of the production process that is used to manufacture their products and 3D printing companies are stepping up their efforts to provide these insights. In addition, 3D printing companies themselves now start to request the same level of information from their contractors and suppliers. This will help to create more transparency at every stage of the 3D printing process and create an overall more sustainable supply chain.”

Another AM firm that is attempting to track and limit its own footprint is Stratasys (Nasdaq: SSYS). In its first ESG report, the company noted that it generated 13,640 tons CO2e (equivalent) in 2020 from direct and indirect emissions. The majority of its direct emissions came from gasoline use for company vehicles in Israel, while the indirect emissions generally came from electricity usage. To help reduce this impact, it installed 589 solar panels at its facilities in Israel. Other projects included upgrading machinery and replacing traditional lighting with LEDs. Rosa Coblens, Vice President of Global Sustainability at Stratasys, told 3DPrint.com:

From a physical standpoint, we have introduced renewable energy through solar panels at some factories and have dozens of additional initiatives to address waste stream and optimize operations. With our customers and partners, we also underscore the environment value of additive manufacturing – from digitizing and localizing supply chains, through manufacturing at scale and on-demand, to reducing waste and emissions.

3D Printing and Society

When it comes to the social aspect of ESG, the topic can be interpreted in many ways. A concept that is increasingly being considered when it comes to social factors is that of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). DEI is something that the non-profit Women in 3D Printing (Wi3DP) is bringing to the forefront of the AM industry, ensuring that it isn’t just something that AM companies pay lip service to, but attempt to take seriously as they improve their overall operations. 

Image courtesy of Stratasys.

To accomplish this task, Wi3DP publishes research into DEI within the industry, mentors students, and  hosts events, such as the extremely popular, all-online TIPE Conference (coming up January 24-26, 2023). However, finding DEI data isn’t always easy, as employers are legally not allowed to ask questions related to some key demographic information, as pointed out in Wi3DP’s “Diversity for AM 2022” report. 

Data on women's seniority level in 3D printing industry. Data on women’s seniority level in 3D printing industry. Image courtesy of Women in 3D Printing/Alexander Daniels Global.

To learn more about the state of DEI in AM, we reached out to Wi3DP Head of DEI & Board Director Sarah Goehrke. While the outlook for this area is promising, Goehrke believes that there is significant work to be done. 

“The AM industry on the whole has a long road ahead in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). While there’s absolutely a hunger for more impactful DEI programming both industry-wide and within individual companies, too many businesses remain hesitant to invest beyond lip service. Investing in DEI requires commitments in terms of both time and money. These are two of the most precious resources a business has, with the third of course being its people. Many companies start with good intentions but shy away from internal DEI programming once they understand the depth of investment needed,” Goehrke told 3DPrint.com. “With years of pandemic conditions really humanizing workforces — we literally see into one another’s homes on Zoom — there’s more conversation than ever before on company culture. Marketing and HR teams tend to bear the brunt of DEI work, but without executive buy-in, at best efforts will look good and at worst will result in higher turnover as the actual culture doesn’t reflect the projected image of the workplace.”

Goehrke highlighted how DEI isn’t just about image management, but about cultivating a company culture that keeps staff happy and, therefore, motivated. 

“The companies that come out on top in 3D printing as the industry continues to reshape, consolidate, and mature will be those that have the best people, plain and simple. People make the tech, people make the business. Building a great team with a culture where people want to work and feel comfortable doing their best work is vital to success, and I think we will see more evidence of that playing out in the next year and going forward,” Goehrke said. 

Because AM is such a new industry, there is plenty of opportunity to integrate these concepts into a corporate culture at inception. 

3D Printing and Governance

Image courtesy of Stratasys.

Typically with ESG, governance refers to issues such as transparency on the part of management. So far, only one firm that we are aware of, Stratasys, has even released an ESG report, already providing the company with a level of transparency beyond many of its colleagues in the space. Stratasys Vice President of Global Sustainability Rosa Coblens told 3DPrint.com:

“Stratasys is the only public Additive Manufacturing company with a Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) standard report, which provides full transparency on our activity during the COVID pandemic, our compensation model, our values and our CSR activities. Our ESG approach is also embedded in our budgeting process. And, we are also advancing an approach to our customers that will enable them to follow our example.”

In an interview with 3DPrint.com about Materialise’s new CO-AM platform, CEO Fried Vancraen did suggest that the company seeks to maintain a level of egalitarianism within the company:

“[Achieving this balance means] trying to be fair in the equilibrium between different stakeholders. We have to value our people [i.e., Materialise employees]. We have to give them credit for that value. And that is something you do by paying them. But, at the same time, we will never be the richest people on earth because we cannot afford it. If we have to give one employee so much, we have to take too much from our customers,” Vancraen said.

“We have to try to create added value in everything we do. Luckily, you can create added value by also doing good for the people and for the planet. But we have to take some of that added value for ourselves. Otherwise, we cannot be sustainable. We cannot be fair to our suppliers, to our employees. So, there’s that constant urge for the right balance where everybody is treated in a fair way.”

Despite the novelty of the sector, however, there have been very few novel approaches to corporate governance. As the maker revolution kicked off in the last decade, one would have expected its open source and DIY attitude applied to company structure, transparency, and pay. One company that does boast a manifesto that possibly reflects those sorts of values is WASP. On its “About Us” page, the Italian firm has made the following bold proclamations:

  • “Everything is mind, everything is change, reality is the result of shared thoughts. WASP project is a humanistic experiment: sailing between art and science, economy and politics, we plan sustainable models and systems, sharing our vision.
  • Nowadays who’s rich has more opportunities. This state of things leads to monopolies and social inequity which infect life quality. WASP project wants to give an economical value to knowledge, commitment and sharing independently of social and economic classes, with a perspective of equal opportunity and meritocracy.
  • Our planet resources aren’t sufficient for the current demographic explosion, so we need to change our development models. WASP project studies, realizes and sponsors eco-friendly systems.
  • The house is a primary need and a right, WASP project suggests a process to realize houses with a very low price; we are self-founding the project evolution by selling our developed systems.
  • Power of money and finance are based on the monopoly of industrial production, WASP project works to let people produce what they need.
  • Once everyone is going to be able to build what they imagine, propriety and poverty will belong to the past. WASP project spreads knowledge and systems to give shape to ideas.
  • WASP project works to realize and diffuse the most advanced technologies and let everyone use them; equal opportunities to free creativity and relaunch the (new) economy from the bottom.”

We’ve reached out to the company to see if these values translate into management style and pay, but we can at least acknowledge that WASP has accomplished the building of sustainable homes after years of labor. 

So far, we haven’t seen many worker co-ops, anarchist collectives, or even B corporations. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be any in the future, but, as the corporate giants take over the industry, it seems like it would be difficult to incorporate into the foundations of the AM sector. After all, the RepRap movement and other open source projects were unable to survive the last decade, aside from a few notable exceptions

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