Not just a new material – a new production ecosystem

Simplifyber shoe

It’s an exciting time in the world of materials with universities and start-ups seemingly announcing alternatives to virgin fossil plastics almost every day. Many research projects are focused on developing new materials that cause less environmental impacts when compared with the virgin fossil plastics they are designed to replace. Typically, these materials are designed to be swapped out (or dropped) in to replace virgin fossil plastics while causing minimum disruption to established manufacturing processes, thereby increasing their chance of being rapidly adopted. In practice, this means they have to be suitable for injection moulding, as this is the most commonly used process to mass produce plastic components.

Taking a far more ambitious approach, Simplifyber, a start-up based in Raleigh, North Carolina, are developing a natural fiber liquid that can be injected into molds to create products. Typically, products, such as sports shoes, are prototyped and then reduced to 2D patterns before being cut out and reassembled into 3D products. An expensive, resource-intensive, and wasteful process involving spinning, weaving, cutting, and sewing. Simplifyber allows products to be developed and created in 3D with a liquid fibre solution poured directly into a mould in a single process. Different formulation of bio-based liquids can be combined to meet the needs of clients. Simplifyber claim that 60% of manufacturing processes are eliminated by this new approach. A factory with 100 employees might produce 1,000 garments, while the new process could deliver 24,000 garments using just four machines and a dozen employees. They go on to make some BIG claims about the savings they can deliver – including reducing demand for plastic by 23 billion tons – quite an achievement when we are currently producing about 400 million tonnes a year and have probably only produced about 10 billion tonnes to date! Regardless of these claims, Simplifyber’s approach is exciting—injection moulding has long since held the crown for being the most significant development in the synthetic plastics industry—it’s about time there was a new challenger!