As the world moves towards a greener agenda, it’s no surprise that goods and materials manufacturers are starting to shift production methods. The aim is to find a cost-effective solution that is environmentally friendly and significantly decreases carbon emissions.
Not an easy task.
Production companies are now turning to additive manufacturing (AM) – also known as 3D Printing – for its sustainability value. Additive manufacturing is a process of producing objects based on 3D models, usually digitised, or digitally engineered, that joins either the same or different materials layer by layer, directly from a raw material such as a powder, liquid, sheet, or filament form. There is no need for pre-made moulds, tools, or dyes that are typically used during conventional machining or forming processes.
Additive Manufacturing Benefits
3D printing is a versatile manufacturing technique that also enables a reduction in energy and raw material usage over traditional production methods. A relatively novel technology, it wastes less product and raw materials, uses less energy, and is highly versatile in its application. According to a 2014 study, switching to additive manufacturing could play a major role in changing life cycle costs, energy use and carbon emissions globally by 2025. It’s ambitious, but if more manufacturers make the shift towards this production method, it may be possible to achieve.
From a purely business standpoint, reducing cost and becoming more energy efficient make AM seem to be an obvious choice. Low volume, customized, and high-value production chains such as aerospace and medical component manufacturing can benefit from 3D printing, while simultaneously reducing resource demands and their related CO2 emissions over the entire product life cycle. Moreover, shifting to AM induces changes in labour structures and generates shifts towards more digital and decentralized supply chains – more cost savings.
AM is starting to replace the conventional production of certain plastics, raw materials, and automotive parts, processes that would usually take a few months or even years are cut down to a few days or weeks with AM. Beyond the obvious efficiency, a shortened supply chain requires less energy use and minimises the carbon footprint of the whole production process.
Repairing and remanufacturing components using 3D printing is also a perfect alternative for manufacturers searching for greener solutions. For example, in the transportation industry, propeller blades can be repaired using 3D printing techniques as opposed to building a new blade, which would include cutting and using large quantities of raw materials, moulds, tools, energy, transport and shipping, not to mention, time. A process that would usually take months can be completed within a matter of hours.
3D printing also offers manufacturers the option to design and build complex objects and shapes that otherwise might be impossible to create through conventional methods, opening the door to nearly immediate product customizations.
Increasing the Sustainability Value Proposition with Novel Materials
Despite its reduced reliance on raw materials, 3D printing is not always a zero-waste option. AM can generate waste if filaments being used are based on fossil fuels. As the manufacturing industry shifts, this is something that needs to be addressed. The filaments used in AM must be eco-friendly and must be made from materials that have proven their sustainability value from their production through their integration into new products.
Luckily, more sustainable options are entering the market. The options of filaments marketing their sustainable value propositions are numerous and varied. These include materials made from recyclable plastics, plastic print waste for filaments, bio-degradable materials and PLA, a cornstarch-based 3D printing material. This is important since 3D printing filaments made from sustainable materials can play a major role in climate change mitigation.
Not all filaments are created equal; the sustainability properties vary greatly depending on the raw material used. Some filaments are made from plant-based material, or landfill waste like UBQ™, while another popular option is ABS, a common thermoplastic polymer, which is a material that can be recycled, reprocessed, and reused. To date, the most sustainable 3D printing filaments used in AM have been largely based on a glycol-modified version of polyethylene terephthalate (PETG). However, this material has limited properties and has confined use cases to dimensional models and dummies.
Growing interest in this novel production approach from both investors and manufacturers alike is propelling the move towards sustainable AM, including developing the raw materials required, which can truly set AM apart as the best option for production.
Finding Truly Sustainable Material Options
To achieve the full sustainability benefits of AM, however, we must ensure that the 3D filaments used are truly sustainable. So, if the material is plant-based, but requires significant water to grow in the first place, it may look sustainable, but its negative environmental impact is simply felt elsewhere.
We must therefore quickly identify raw material sources that are infinite, cost-effective, and shift production to circular models. If we can create new end-of-life solutions for waste that is typically seen as unrecyclable, we can close the loop on the production cycle with circular solutions. For example, utilising waste from landfills that can be converted to a climate positive thermoplastic within 3D printing filaments is a new option for AM that enables sustainable and eco-conscious manufacturing practices. UBQ Materials recently worked together with Plastics App, an innovative R&D polymers and plastics company, to develop such a filament.
What’s Stopping Companies from Transitioning to AM?
So, why hasn't everyone and everything transitioned to 3D printing? Seemingly, it can be cost-effective, and with the right material choices, AM can be a much more sustainable way to produce goods. While the answers are nuanced depending on who you ask, more often than not, it boils down to cost.
While 3D printing a product may be cost-effective, according to a 2020 study in the biomedical sector, the cost of transitioning to AM can be extremely financially taxing for companies, especially smaller producers. Materials, utility, and technological maintenance can be expensive, putting aside the cost of implementing 3D printing hardware, software, system integration, and the cost of 3D printers themselves.
The study also found that companies from across manufacturing sectors, which adopt the technology without redesigning their organisational structure and processes, encountered difficulties. This barrier to entry is often enough of a sticking point to justify moving slower.
What’s more, creating components without machining or tools can lead to efficiency and design faults with many prints sometimes needed until a correct model is created – more added costs. This wastage can grow into a problem for the environment and companies’ bottom lines.
Fortunately, innovators are working to address this challenge as well.
A Trend That Must Catch On
The benefits of AM can outweigh the challenges when it comes to carbon footprint reduction. It’s a trendy and novel way for manufacturers to produce goods, and it is attracting innovative developments, so we will certainly see rapid evolution and progress in this space to address these challenges.
Beyond the initial capital expenditure, 3D printing goods is cost-effective, energy-efficient, and cuts down transportation needs, which all contribute to minimising Greenhouse Gas emissions. Moreover, 3D printing is less reliant on finite raw materials in the printing process.
By adopting truly sustainable and cost-competitive raw materials for 3D printing, manufacturers may find a more efficient way to approach additive manufacturing, while simultaneously minimising waste, and preventing significant harmful emissions associated with traditional manufacturing practices.