Additive Manufacturing Offers Sustainable Alternative to Traditional Production

February 2, 2024

Manufacturers have long been limited by a linear production model. This “take-make-dispose” approach gets the job done, but it is often inefficient, expensive and wasteful. Innovation experts, however, are now exploring how additive manufacturing (AM) technologies such as 3D printing might provide solutions for the issues of traditional manufacturing. 

A paper co-authored by Neeraj Bharadwaj, Proffitt’s Professor in Marketing, Charlie and Carolyn Newcomer Faculty Fellow and Neel Corporate Governance Center research fellow at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Haslam College of Business, and James Rose, distinguished lecturer and director of the Institute for Smart Structures at UT’s College of Architecture and Design, investigates a take-make-transmigrate” alternative to the traditional linear model. In this approach, products are designed specifically to have their ingredient materials reclaimed later to create additional products.

Repurposing Waste Material and Reusing Components

Traditional manufacturing uses subtractive processes such as milling and carving to remove material. These processes produce waste and typically result in a single-use item that ends up in a landfill. AM, on the other hand, creates objects by building up layers of material. Utilizing discarded or used ingredient material for AM means less expense and less waste.

For their study, the UT co-researchers teamed up with Local Motors (LM), producers of the first 3D-printed car. LM realized that crash-testing its prototypes and vehicles resulted in a large quantity of wasted polymer, and wondered how that ingredient material could be repurposed. Keeping in mind that the process of regrinding and pelletizing the polymer would reduce its original strength, the team posited that if they accounted for the material’s degradation, waste ingredients could be reclaimed to make other kinds of products. 

They tested their theory by using reclaimed polymer from a 3D-printed automobile chassis to create a 3D-printed stackable chair. The outcome demonstrated that AM has the potential to revolutionize the production process.

“The resulting product was functional, aesthetically pleasing and less expensive due to the reduced cost of the input material,” Bharadwaj says. “Additionally, the ingredient material can be reclaimed again when the chair is no longer needed and can appear in a new product that accommodates material degradation.”

Implications for All Stakeholders

By learning to view product components as reusable ingredients, managers can adopt a design-to-disassemble approach in which products are drafted and created with eventual disassembly and material reuse in mind. Knowing that repurposing those ingredients will cause some material degradation, they can innovate across different product categories, as the UT and LM group did with its car-to-chair project.

Companies can enhance their sustainability efforts by educating consumers about the process and benefits of this “innovation loop,” Bharadwaj explains. “Producers must communicate why they ascribe importance to the reuse of ingredient materials and specify how customers can send back products that can be reclaimed.”

Conveying that message extends to product packaging as well. With more consumers becoming concerned about the harmful environmental impact of packaging, savvy companies are exploring creative options that protect the environment as well as the product. Bharadwaj offers Klöckner Pentaplast as an example of a packaging manufacturer whose practices serve as a prime example of this concept. 

“[Klöckner Pentaplast] takes plastic waste collected from the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, transmigrates that into packaging solutions for the food industry and sells packaging featuring a ‘recycled coastal plastics’ logo to such clients as fast-food restaurants, meat and protein factories and dairy producers. The clients hope consumers will deem the environmentally friendly packaging as a meaningful point of differentiation and select those products.”

With boards increasingly focusing on environmental, social and governance issues, the circular take-make-transmigrate model presents opportunities for decision makers at every stage of a product’s lifecycle. 

“Our cyclical model can generate benefits for customers, companies, shareholders and other stakeholders (e.g., communities, environment, policy makers),” Bharadwaj says. “The fact that numerous constituencies can achieve a ‘win’ by progressing beyond the traditional take-make-dispose production model is likely to appeal to corporate boards as they oversee and advise executive teams.”

The paper, “Sustainable Innovation: Additive Manufacturing And The Emergence of a Cyclical Take-Make-Transmigrate Process at a Pioneering Industry-University Collaboration,” was published in the Journal of Product Innovation Management.


Stacy Estep, writer/publicist,