Innovation investment driving environmental benefits

As businesses plan to contribute to a more sustainable future with advanced efforts, we asked companies for their views on the role of environmental issues in decisions about innovation investment. We wanted to know where environmental issues were shaping their investment in innovation.

Environmental, legislative and competitive pressures have driven a great deal of innovation investment. Additive Manufacturing (AM) featured strongly in comments from Adam Sells and Peter Hammond, not surprising when it promises big savings, amongst other things, in material costs.

In aerospace industries, metal parts are often machined from a solid billet of costly high-grade titanium. This can mean that 90% of the material is cut away with the waste swarf of no use.  With AM, titanium powder can be used to print things like a bracket for an aircraft door or part of a satellite. These can be as strong as a machined part but use only 10% of the raw material, according to researchers at EADS, the European aerospace consortium which is the parent of Airbus.

The GE Catalyst, for example, will be the first commercial turboprop engine where more than a third of the engine is 3D printed, which enables GE to combine 855 separate parts into just 12 and shave off more than 100 pounds in weight. The design and the components will help reduce the GE Catalyst’s fuel burn by as much as 20% and give it 10% more power compared with engines in its class.

Another GE business, GE Aviation, invested in 3D printing to manufacture TiAl turbine blades for its GEnxjet engine, featured inside Boeing’s Dreamliner. The blades have 50% of the weight of nickel alloys and these and other new materials and technologies will help make the engine 10% more fuel-efficient than its predecessor, the GE90.

3T RPD, a British firm that offers additive-manufacturing services, printed a gearbox for a racing car with smooth internal pathways for hydraulic oil instead of drilled-out right-angle bends. The box not only allows faster gear changes but is some 30% lighter, says Ian Halliday, the firm’s chief executive.

The technology enables a business to scan an object in one place and tell another machine on the other side of the world how to build a copy. That means, for instance, that urgently needed spares could be produced in remote places without having to ship anything. Even parts that are no longer available could be replicated, by scanning a broken item, repairing it virtually and then printing a new one.

So, in the centralised manufacturing setting, AM is seen as an enabler of more efficient manufacturing processes featuring smaller inventory and reduced requirements for distribution. In decentralised supply chains the promise is of environmental savings in terms of transportation and logistics of intermediate and end products. But the true value of the environmental benefit of this technology still needs further research given the high energy usage of some processes.

We need to know much more about the material footprints, energy consumption in production, process emissions, and especially the linkages and alignments between the various stages in the production process.

Reid Lifset, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Industrial Ecology

R&D innovation doesn’t get more dramatic than nuclear fusion. Yet Mark Crouchen’s company, Rockwood Composites, has been heavily involved in the development of components for fusion reactors primarily focusing on composites operating at cryogenic temperatures. Creating temperatures and pressures only found at the centre of the sun presents without destroying the machine is the very definition of an innovation.

Their participation is in creating components for Tokomak Energy in the UK and with the ITER project (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor). These mammoth undertakings at the frontiers of science and engineering will hopefully yield the energy revolution that the world so desperately needs in the next ten years. Should fusion power become economically viable, it would solve many of humanity’s current and future energy supply problems.

At MPA Group, we have proven success working with businesses who are committed to innovation through research and development. To help fund innovation and business growth we make R&D tax credit and Patent Box claims as simple as possible. Taking the time to understand clients and their businesses, before providing the data and analysis to leverage the maximum claim value.