Informative

Designing for excellence

June 24, 2021

What are the elements of a great material?

Depending on who you ask this question, you might get very different answers. Is it an ultra-strong, lightweight, chemically resistant plastic? Is it a polymer which biodegrades completely after a week in the garden? Or perhaps a material which forms a superhydrophobic coating on your jacket, making it waterproof?

In any case, the answers will vary, because the truth is that there are many different ways for a material to be great. It doesn’t have to be complicated, though. At B4Plastics we believe that all of these factors can be distilled to three key areas:

  1. the function, i.e. the relationship between the material’s molecular structure and its functional behaviour in the desired application,
  2. the environmental cost of production and use,
  3. the financial cost to acquire, use and recycle.

These three factors create the golden triangle at B4Plastics: we redesign tomorrow’s plastics, giving them the best balance of each of them in a unique way.

Designing for function

The first factor is quite simple: materials should be developed for the function they are required for. This is a tale as old as time, as engineers, manufacturers and even nature have been designing materials for specific purposes. Just like cellulose was designed to give plants stability and starch for energy, materials can be made into whatever you need them to be.  At B4Plastics, we believe we can orchestrate the design of our polymers in such a way that the molecular architecture matches the material requirements in its specialized application.

Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash

Simply put, we are convinced that the “match to fit” concept results in the best design principle, with a clear end-of-life solution. This may seem obvious, but for years manufacturers of a wide range of products have not been operating with this mindset. Many commercial materials have not been designed, on a molecular level, with an end-of-life solution that fits the application. For example, the single use disposable products of the last 70 years have been overwhelmingly made from plastics. These products are often not able to degrade in nature, or have not been designed to be easily recycled, leading to plastic pollution. Implementing the “match to fit” principle from cradle-to-grave will require a fundamental shift in our current industrial perspective on plastics in general, and also other materials.

The environmental impact

That brings us to the next point: one of the most fundamental factors that we can not overlook is the environmental footprint of the material. For example, if the material is a plastic, what is its planned end-of-life solution? Will it biodegrade, be industrially composted, or recycled? Or will it contribute to the aforementioned plastic pollution crisis, causing irreparable harm to nature? Designing the material must always take this into account. Also, it is important to question how environmentally friendly the compounds used to create the material are, and the production process itself. We recommend following the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry which outline the most sustainable practices for chemical reactions. As an industry, we must hold ourselves accountable for our environmental impact, and as producers, we must be confident in the end-of-life of our products.

Compost3D®: 3D printing filament made primarily from natural raw materials and 100% compostable, and the first plastic product ever that you can predict and track in its composting speed on your smartphone. This is an example of a great B4Plastics material.

The financial cost

Finally, a manufacturer should consider the cost of accessing the raw materials and of the production process, compared to the final value of the material. To be able to finance the access and fabrication of great materials there must obviously be an overall profit, whether that is a pure financial profit or also a (hidden) social or ecological profit!

But it is actually imperative not to think “cheapest is best”. The production of a high-quality material requires a well-thought-out capital investment. As a great material has to be designed to fit its function – with a minimal environmental impact – this tends to rule out the cheapest compounds and processes. Careful research of the starting materials to find the best possible compromise between all of these factors is therefore essential.

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

Just as important is finding customers who will appreciate the effort you put into this process. Our advice is to always form a strong relationship with partners, clients and suppliers, who aim for materials or product specifications which match your expectations, values and vision. Only in this way, it is possible to create an industrial network based on trust and commitment to the delivery of high-quality products, where mutually beneficial investments in the various stages of the supply chain are created.

Our commitment to transparent and ethical research and development enables us to create materials that we are proud of, without having to compromise on their environmental footprint – and we are convinced that this is what makes a material great.

See Compost3D® for an example of a great B4Plastics material: 3D printing with the best balance between function, ecology and cost.

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