Can a new technique empower decision makers to create greener products? Claude Maack outlines a more holistic approach to material selection
Mankind is facing one of its greatest challenges: climate change and the protection of our planet for future generations. The current geopolitical instabilities do not help to improve the situation. These instabilities are always temporary, even if the consequences will last and be felt for a long period of time, while climate change will persist. This is a fact. The 20% increase in population and the associated increase in energy and natural resources by another 30% by 2050 are further factors and will challenge our society, politics, science and industry alike.
Sustainability is a megatrend and is multidimensional – and so will be the solutions. There will not be just one type of energy resource for power generation, nor will there be just one technology to solve the situation.
Lightweighting is an important piece of the puzzle, limiting the need for primary energy and natural resources in the face of increasing demand from a growing population. We are talking about a multi-billion-dollar global market for decades to come.
However, lightweight solutions must be affordable. The art is to consider and harmonise ecology and economy in equal measure. A holistic approach to identifying resource and energy needs across all process phases, from extraction of natural resources to their transformation, logistics, manufacturing of products, energy consumption during the use phase, and recycling at the end of life, is imperative. Political interests, lobbying or ideological ideas must be consistently pushed back.
Furthermore, the cost analysis of all phases must be considered too. When applying this method, and when comparing competitive technologies for the realisation of different products, decision makers, stakeholders and politicians will have transparent and clear grounds – i.e., precisely knowing the impact on cost and also on sustainability, climate change and the earth’s protection – from which to make the decision whether or not to invest in a product. It is about making sustainability measurable, assessable, qualifiable and quantifiable.
This is vital for avoiding greenwashing, as most decisions are motivated today by the ideological thinking of politicians or large OEMs defending their position, which is often driven by purely economic aspects.
A Real World Example
As a case study, we examine here a sustainability value analysis for a lightweight seat wound by the Gradel Robotic Additive Manufacturing (GRAM) system. It concerns the winding of complex 3D structures by a 7-axis robot. The materials used are basalt fibres and bio-based resin, with a back panel of flax and Alcantara upholstery. The basalt structure has a weight of 1,800 grams.
With the described method and holistic approach, the basalt structure, as well as the Rayon fibres, proved the best result. Compared with steel and plastic injection moulding they cannot compete on price, but they do save energy in the use phase. Carbon and aluminium structures induce the same production cost as basalt or Rayon. Both carbon and aluminium semi-finished products have a huge C02 footprint as they consume a huge amount of energy, which cannot be recovered during the use phase.
Finally, it is obviously important to analyse the market you are in. For aeronautic passenger seats, for example, the use phase has a much higher importance and therefore carbon has improved chances, as it still offers the best weight/stiffness ratio and mechanical properties.
Claude Maack is CEO of Gradel