June 29, 2018

Jeremy Faludi: exploring sustainable design beyond 3D printers

Jeremy Faludi

Jeremy Faludi

Assistant Professor, Dartmouth College

Jeremy Faludi is a sustainable design strategist and assistant professor at Dartmouth College. We chat about his work in sustainable design, including the “hype” that tends to follow the topic. He shares about sparking sustainable innovation, green design methods, and how digital product design fits into the mix.

Eli Woolery: Jeremy Faludi, Assistant Professor at Dartmouth College, welcome to Conversations on DesignBetter.Co.

Jeremy Faludi: Thanks, it’s good to be here, Eli.

Understanding the sustainability hype

Eli Woolery: Great to have you. So you work on sustainable design—that’s your area of expertise. There are a number of real interesting topics there. One I’m really curious about is the transition from physical products to digital products over the years. I’ve always remained fascinated by 3D printing and additive technology, even though there’s a bit of feeling out there that it’s overhyped. This is one of the areas you research. What are some things you’re finding interesting in sustainable 3D printing, and what kind of strides have been made there recently?

Jeremy Faludi: Well, first, you’re right about both the hype and the promise. You know, back in the ’90s, there was all this buzz about, “Oh, the internet’s going to change everything.” People weren’t wrong—it’s just that there was this huge bubble of expectation that then burst before people could get to the slower reality of the internet becoming the way we do everything.

And so, in the long-term, I believe 3D printing will become the way we do, not everything, but most manufacturing. It’s just going to take a lot longer than everybody is expecting because of the hype.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of hype about sustainability in 3D printing as well, because people assume that it’ll be a greener way of making things—because it “eliminates transportation.” People forget that you still have to ship raw materials.

People also have a lot of hype around the idea of 3D printing eliminating waste. That can be true in some kinds of 3D printing for some shapes, but actually, it’s possible for there to be a lot of waste in other kinds of 3D printing.

One kind of printer, an Objet, is quite popular because it has really good surface finish—but it creates 43% waste of its liquid epoxy, and that’s not even counting support material. That’s before support material!

There’s also one of those little desktop FDM printers by 3D Systems, I forget the name of it—but even if the models you’re printing have zero waste in the actual plastic filament, the spool cartridge of 3D printing material is actually more plastic mass than the spool of plastic material inside it. It’s a co-molded piece of two different kinds of plastics with some electronics in it, meaning it’s totally unrecyclable. So in this case, you have 50% waste of anything you do there, again, not even counting supportive material.

With those examples alone, elimination of waste and transportation are two big myths of 3D printing. Even if both of were true, they wouldn’t really matter much because the biggest environmental impact of 3D printing is the energy use during the printing process. So it’s actually way higher of an environmental impact per part printed than injection molding is, you know, if you’re making tens of thousands of parts, or millions of parts.

The research I’m doing these days—along with people like Ron Rael at UC Berkeley, Eric Klarenbeek in the Netherlands, and Marcus Kaiser at MIT—is looking at ways to have lower energy printing processes and how to print with greener materials. I’m particularly focused on compostable bio materials that are ideally agricultural waste.

Right now, I’m working on printing in ground up pecan shells, because it’s a waste product and also a compostable bio material. I’m trying to figure out how to get that to be as strong as ABS plastic so it could be a real viable alternative.


Sparking sustainable innovation in design


Eli Woolery: So the substrate is the pecan shells, and then you have to have some kind of binding agent, probably that’s also compostable? What kinds of things are you looking for in that realm?

Jeremy Faludi: We’re still experimenting there, so we don’t have what I would call a good solution yet. We’ve looked at a number of things from pine resin to PVA to cyanoacrylate—which is super glue. It’s not a great material, but it is actually biodegradable.

Eli Woolery: One of the other things it sounds like you’ve been doing research on is companies using sustainable design methods, not only for the sustainability aspect but also to help spark innovation.

Jeremy Faludi: Yeah, absolutely. Back at Berkeley, I did some empirical research on what designers and engineers and managers actually value in different green design methods. We, in the sustainability world, are always trying to get people to try the stuff out to see how it will be for their design process. Almost no one else has done empirical studies, so we do workshops with people and ask them what they liked and didn’t like.

I’ve done that with more than 500 people, half were in industry, half of were students at Berkeley. I tried to make a broad swath across many segments, so we had design consultancies, manufacturers, consumer electronics, apparel, and furniture. Like I said, we also talked to people with different expertises—product designers, engineers, and managers.

From this, I tried out three different green design methods.

  • One is called The Natural Step, which is one of the oldest green design methods. It’s been around since the late ’80s or early ’90s, and it was invented over in Sweden.
  • The second is Whole System Mapping, which is a method I came up with for the Autodesk Sustainability Workshop several years ago. It really combines the creative sides of whole systems thinking with the analytical side of life cycle assessments. Or, you can use other scorecards like cradle-to-cradle or EPEAT for electronics.
  • The third one is biomimicry, which is the idea of looking to nature for inspiration, since nature already has a sustainable manufacturing and recycling system that’s been going on for 3.8 billion years.

It was really interesting to see what people valued and criticized about each of these things. A couple of the main takeaways were:

  1. Most companies have no idea of all the tools available out there. Aside from these three, there were 11 others I profiled in my research. Companies valued bits and pieces of each, but nobody really wants to just do one.
  2. Design methods are not tunnels of process, where you jump in one side, do all the steps, and then get spat out the other side with a brilliant design. They’re more like toolboxes, where a given design method has a given set of tools, and you’ll pull those out when they seem appropriate. Other design methods have different sets of tools.
  3. People combine different methods as needed for projects. I also did 43 interviews with people about how they practice today. Nearly everyone said that they would combine bits and pieces of different design methods for the project at hand.

I think the really valuable part of my research is that I didn’t just say one method was better than the other. Statements like that aren’t meaningful or useful. Rather, it’s a matter of figuring out how to get to the good parts of each—in The Natural Step, that’s this backcasting process for setting a vision and goals.

For Whole System Mapping, the really great part is thinking through the system in a visual way and creating a map, then brainstorming with it to avoid fixation on a certain set of ideas.

For biomimicry, the real value is just getting outside the box, getting different perspectives on other solutions that might be possible. Nature designs and builds things in very different ways than industry does. So it was really cool to see what tools you might use from each of these toolboxes, and how to give those kinds of recommendations to people.

Eli Woolery: That reminds me a lot of teaching the design thinking process to undergrads at Stanford in a pretty linear way. But almost everyone who uses design thinking, or designs sprints, or related systems in the real world, treat them more like a toolbox. They rarely go point to point through the the whole thing.

Jeremy Faludi: The other thing that was interesting about the research was where people found innovation value.

I’ve done green design projects with companies for many years through classes and consulting, and it’s always wonderful and kind of funny to hear their surprise. Years ago, at Panasonic, some folks said, “We were surprised this green design process not only helped us come up with better ideas for sustainability, but with aesthetic and functionality improvements to the project too.”

Thinking about sustainable digital design

Eli Woolery: There are a lot of conversations that we hear about sustainable physical product design, but not so much around digital products. Can you speak to our audience of designers a bit about how they might think about digital product design in a more sustainable way?

Jeremy Faludi: Yeah, absolutely. Digital product design is more ethereal and ephemeral, so it’s harder to pin down environmental impacts. The main environmental impact of software running is the energy use and the hardware you need to run it.

Whether that’s in your computer on your desk, or in the cloud somewhere, every CPU cycle is more energy burned. And that’s more mining and processing that needed to happen to create those chips.

There’s definitely an argument for making streamlined, thin, svelte software so you can make it more efficient to run. But really, the big impact in the digital world is how it changes people’s behavior. You know, does a video conference software really prevent people from flying across the country, because then, great, use all the CPU cycles you want, because it’ll still be a net benefit.

One of the examples I always trot out is Google Transit in Google Maps. Many years ago when I wrote for WorldChanging, I wrote a blog post about how Google Maps should run transit. They had the best UI for mapping, so I wrote that Google should just make an API all transit agencies could plug into to get service for free (with better outcomes than what those agencies were building).

One of the blog commenters was the head of IT for TriMet, which is Portland, Oregon’s transit agency. She wrote something like, “Yeah, we’ve been wanting to do this but can’t find anyone at Google.” I had a few friends at Google, so I connected them, and about six months later Google Maps Transit existed.

The point is, with public transit, one of the big barriers to people using it is figuring out what bus to take, where is the nearest bus stop, where would I transfer from one line to another, and on. Traditionally you just had to learn these things over months or years, so Google Maps Transit was an absolute watershed in enabling millions of transit trips that never would have happened before. It’s gotten a lot of people out of their cars.


Eli Woolery: That’s wonderful. I have to thank you for playing even a small part in making that connection happen, because I use it all the time too, and I’d be pretty lost without it.

Jeremy Faludi: Awesome!

Eli Woolery: So I’d like to wrap up by asking you about any books or resources you recommend. You can mention anything on sustainable design or what inspires you personally.

Jeremy Faludi: Yeah, totally.

Good blogs and websites:

Sustainable Brands


VentureWell Tools for Design & Sustainability

Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute online learning

Good books:

Okala Practitioner: Integrating Ecological Design

Lewis & Gertsakis, Design + Environment

Hawken & Lovins, Natural Capitalism

Eli Woolery: I want to say thank you so much, this has been super interesting. We need more people working on sustainable design.

Jeremy Faludi: Yeah, let’s hope that getting the word out like this helps.


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