Unlocking value for a circular economy through 3D printing: A research agenda
Journal article, 2017

The circular economy (CE) aims to radically improve resource efficiency by eliminating the concept of waste and leading to a shift away from the linear take-make-waste model. In a CE, resources are flowing in a circular manner either in a biocycle (biomass) or technocycle (inorganic materials). While early studies indicate that 3D printing (3DP) holds substantial promise for sustainability and the creation of a CE, there is no guarantee that it will do so. There is great uncertainty regarding whether the current trajectory of 3DP adoption is creating more circular material flows or if it is leading to an alternative scenario in which less eco-efficient localised production, demands for customised goods, and a higher rate of product obsolescence combine to bring about increased resource consumption. It is critical that CE principles are embedded into the new manufacturing system before the adoption of 3DP reaches a critical inflection point in which negative practices become entrenched. This paper, authored by both academic and industry experts, proposes a research agenda to determine enablers and barriers for 3DP to achieve a CE. We explore the two following overarching questions to discover what specific issues they entail: (1) How can a more distributed manufacturing system based on 3DP create a circular economy of closed-loop material flows? (2) What are the barriers to a circular 3D printing economy? We specifically examine six areas—design, supply chains, information flows, entrepreneurship, business models and education—with the aim of formulating a research agenda to enable 3DP to reach its full potential for a CE.

Research agenda


Circular economy

3D printing

Additive manufacturing


Mélanie Despeisse

University of Cambridge

Martin Baumers

University of Nottingham

Phil Brown

Delft University of Technology

Fiona Charnley

Cranfield University

Simon J. Ford

University of Cambridge

Alysia Garmulewicz

University of Santiago, Chile

Scott Knowles


Tim Minshall

University of Cambridge

Letizia Mortara

University of Cambridge

Felix Reed-Tsochas

University of Oxford

Jonathan Rowley


Technological Forecasting and Social Change

0040-1625 (ISSN)

Vol. 115 75-84

Subject Categories

Mechanical Engineering

Materials Engineering

Environmental Engineering

Economics and Business

Electrical Engineering, Electronic Engineering, Information Engineering

Driving Forces

Sustainable development

Innovation and entrepreneurship

Areas of Advance




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