Header Title



business models, strategies and technologies

Natural composites pave the way to new manufacturing mindsets

Biomaterials seem likely to up-end the wonderful world of composites – materials and capabilities ideal for next-gen flex-capability manufacturers using innovative business models in a circular economy

The darker side of green

I’ve written about composites in other Rethinking posts, and about how they pave the way to structures, shapes and capabilities that wouldn’t otherwise be technically possible, or commercially viable. There’s good reason for composites eclipsing conventional materials in contexts where the performance requirements are high.

However, there’s a consistent downside to these remarkable combinations of strength and lightness. It’s paradoxical that many of the technology and engineering achievements lauded for their apparent “greenness” and role in reducing environmental impacts (wind turbine blades and composite structures in aircraft, for example) have a less-highlighted darker side. They are often based on oil-based epoxy and other crude oil-derived resins with murky CO2 footprints, and involve a wide range of complex-to-produce synthetic fibres such as Kevlar®, which has the big attraction of a tensile strength-to-weight ratio five times that of steel.

Such composites have substantial potential but come at considerable cost – both direct and indirect. However, a small but seemingly determined Danish company seems ready to deliver a high-potential substitute for conventional CFRP and GFRP plastics as well as other products made with resins and polymers sourced from fossil fuels.

Designed for responsible balance

According to their website, the pond (always difficult with lower-case names!) company develops and produces bioresin systems that are 100% organic in origin. These resins can be used to bind natural, sustainability-friendly fibres of many different types, resulting in composite products that are fully biodegradable when exposed to certain strains of bacteria found in nature. These materials can apparently even be composted, and the company explains that it’s even possible to customise how fast the material degrades in order to suit the required product lifespan, and whether it’s used indoors or out.

According to Pond/pond itself, what makes the company’s resin technology remarkable – and gives it a competitive edge compared with other bio-based resins – is the strength of the end product. This apparently makes these bio-resin systems a practical, commercially attractive substitute for traditional crude-oil resins in manufacturing strategically important products that include vehicles, wind turbine blades, aircraft components, building products, bottles and packaging.

Two-way stretch

Pond/pond (almost every external mention I could find spells it “Pond”) declares that the company’s main objective is “to revolutionise the way humans produce a variety of products from using conventional oil-based plastic solutions to 100% biomaterials” and appears to have ambitious big-picture goals (see below, from their website). There are strong indications that the company’s capabilities provide a remarkable “double dimension” of materials science advantages and benefits, reaching back to sustainable sourcing as well as forward to responsible disposal.

Our vision is to pass on a biodiverse planet by enabling consumers to choose products in symbiosis with nature

For manufacturers considering the use of such composites, the use of sustainable biomaterials is only part of the story. For such companies, the crucial parameter for a product’s commercial success is unlikely to be responsible sourcing and disposal of the materials involved. Instead, their focus is usually on perspectives that involve technical specifications, design and finishing capabilities, cost, production efficiency and quality consistency. What you can use the raw material for, rather than what it is.

From materials to a mindset about manufacturing

The growing interest in 3D printing and additive manufacturing, designing and building up materials for specific capabilities – rather than deconstructing and removing existing material – means that companies like Nasdaq-listed Stratasys, German Evonik (“power to create”!) and Belgium-based Materialise are breaking new ground along exactly these lines. One key difference between these big hitters in the additive manufacturing world is that Stratasys communication seems to follow the traditional engineering mindset of focusing on the machinery the company provides. Materialise (great name for a company in this field!), on the other hand, communicates a clear sense of a significantly different mindset,

we empower our customers to transition towards a digital manufacturing process and to launch innovations that have the potential to forever change the faces of their industries.

Materialise says it operates one of the world’s largest 3D printing facilities, but the most interesting thing about this company lies in its overall perspective on manufacturing, focusing on human involvement, creative multidisciplinary collaboration, engineering ingenuity and break-the-mould innovation. The company seems to be doing a good job.

from the Materialise website

of putting conceptual pictures onto modern digitally linked manufacturing processes in which methods are just as important – if not more so – as the materials, and agility/customisation are more important than mass production.

Materialise and other similar companies are in the vanguard of developing tool-less production using engineering plastics, elastomers and thermoplastics as well as a broad spectrum of other untraditional “component” materials – powders, resins, filaments, gels, crystals, etc. This in turn is part of a new mindset transitioning from traditional reductive volume manufacturing using machine tools, dies, stamping and milling towards agile, responsible additive manufacturing in smaller sequences, rooted in market/customer requirements.

Providing paths to responsibility

Once there’s a widespread acceptance that the industrial use of plastics is – at its most basic – a fundamental design failure because it ignores responsible sourcing and disposal, there would seem to be substantial commercial potential for the use of bio-based resins and other environmentally responsible composites to provide an ideal way for a manufacturer to comply with next-gen requirements involving end-to-end environmental footprints and circularity. Companies like Pond/pond can then provide a double-ended “responsibility platform” and their value proposition could then transition from being nice-to-have to need-to-have, placing it slap-bang dead-centre in OECD Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and SDG-compliant manufacturing of all kinds of things – both industrial and for consumers. This would be a key strategic shift from enabler to prerequisite.

This would also involve visibly venturing into the crucial realm of what other companies can achieve by using the materials that composite suppliers provide. The more companies like Materialise want to do or are capable of doing, the more companies with Pond/pond-like capabilities can make possible. However, if such operations are able to provide the technical potential and materials substrate (a.k.a. technology platform) that manufacturing operations can exploit, it seems these companies could become part of an important ongoing rethink of the basic processes involved in manufacturing. Basically, this is the transition from a business narrative just sketching potential to one portraying successful implementation – a stronger, easier sell.

A plethora of pluses

But perhaps the most exciting perspective for a company of the Pond/pond ilk is that it ticks important boxes on yet another level – by providing an alternative business model for the whole use of bioresins and bioplastics, featuring decentralised, transport-reducing production as well as circularity.

According to CEO and co-founder Thomas Brorsen Pedersen in a PR blurb I was able to find via Toyota Environmental Challenge 2050, the Pond magic sauce features extremely strong chemical bonding because of the interface between the resin and fibre components. This makes it particularly suitable for mixing with a surprisingly wide range of natural fibres available on-site as production waste or as locally sourced biowaste. This in turn opens up break-the-mould opportunities for local production of bioresins using the Pond material, technology and know-how, in which companies can use their own waste products as key components. A brewery, for example, can use residue barley stalks and waste water to produce bioresin for bottles, caps and packaging, or a cotton textiles manufacturer can use cellulose and other fibres present in the waste water to produce buttons and stiffeners.

As a result, Pond/pond is able to showcase contributions to responsible sourcing, materials science, design engineering and strategic implementation, as well as circularity and responsible disposal. Plus the founder’s own journo-friendly success story.

I imagine these multi-faceted benefits, apparently already attracting worldwide attention from the big boys in the “old school” of plastics, will make it difficult to select the single prime narrative. It’s not easy when a newly started company has a technology that’s commercially attractive on so many fronts that it’s almost ridiculous.