Over the past few decades, alarm about the impact of human activities on the environment has steadily risen. One major area of concern is that of manufacturing. Manufacturing activities are known to consume significant quantities of natural resources and the vast amount of waste tey produce. With the advent of 3D printing, a viable solution to these environmental problems has emerged. While the technology has been around since the 1980s, it has only recently become widely available and affordable. As for its potential applications, these range from aerospace engineering to medical implants to consumer products.
So, what makes 3D printing sustainable? There are several key factors to consider:
A significant advantage of 3D printing is that it produces less waste than traditional manufacturing processes. Conventional, substrative processes involve cutting, drilling, and shaping raw materials to create the desired product. This often generates a significant amount of waste, as much of the raw material is simply discarded during the process. In contrast, 3D printing, because of its additive nature, only uses the amount of material that is needed to create the product. The printing process is precise and efficient, ensuring that very little, if any, material is wasted. 3D printing is said to produce between 70% and 90% less production scrap compared to some traditional manufacturing methods.
Reduced water and energy usage
Conventional manufacturing methods often require large amounts of water for cooling and cleaning processes, and consume huge amounts of energy to produce, transport, and assemble products. In contrast, 3D printing typically does not require any water usage and it uses significantly less energy as it only requires the energy needed to heat the printing material and operate the printer - thus further reducing the environmental impact of manufacturing.
Shipping raw materials and finished products across long distances tend to be energy intensive and high-emission activities. 3D printing allows products to be created on site, eliminating the need for transportation and reducing the carbon footprint of these products. This is particularly beneficial for small-scale production, as it allows businesses to produce goods locally and on-demand.
Customisation and Personalisation
Creating a large number of identical products, even if there is no demand for them, is common practice. This can lead to excess inventory and waste, as well as higher energy consumption and carbon emissions. Using 3D printing allows for the creation of unique, customised products that are tailored to individual preferences, creating no excess inventory or waste. In addition, the ability to create replacement parts for existing products through 3D printing extends the lifespan of products, reducing the need for new purchases and further contributing to sustainability.
Recycling and repurposing
Finally, 3D printing is sustainable because it enables the recycling and repurposing of materials. Many 3D printers can use recycled plastic or metal, materials, which reduces the need for virgin materials and minimises the environmental impact.
Additionally, due to the ability to print very complex geometries, designers can create parts that require no screws or adhesives and that are designed to be disassembled and recycled at the end of their useful life.
The right material
As a materials strategist, my first focus is always on choosing the right material, as this is key to achieving a successful product. Obviously, if the printed object is a concept sketch or a prototype, it rarely matters. However, for serial production and commercial products, it is crucial to first carefully select the material, immediately followed by determining the printing technology to be used.
Among the materials for 3D printing that are considered sustainable are those that have already been recycled, are renewably sourced or biodegradable. Here are some examples:
- PLA (Polylactic Acid): is a bio-based plastic derived from natural resources such as cornstarch or sugarcane. Certain grades are biodegradable. It is one of the most popular materials for 3D printing because it is easy to print and produces high-quality prints. Among the many providers of this material are 3D-Fuel, ColorFabb, Filamentive, and Proto-pasta.
- Hemp-based filaments: these are made from hemp fibres mixed with a binding agent. Hemp is a fast-growing plant that requires less water and fewer pesticides than other crops, making it an eco-friendly option. Companies that produce hemp-based filaments include 3D-Fuel, Advanced BioCarbon 3D, and Extrudr.
- Recycled filaments: these are made from recycled plastic materials, such as PET bottles, ocean plastics or waste from other manufacturing processes. Recycled filaments are an eco-friendly option, as their use reduces waste, keeps valuable resources from ending up in landfills, and promotes a circular economy. Companies like Filamentive, RePLAy 3D, and Proto-pasta produce recycled filaments
- Wood-based filaments: are made from recycled wood particles mixed with a binding agent. They can be biodegradable and create a natural-looking finish. Such filaments are supplied by 3D-Fuel, ColorFabb, Formfutura, and Proto-pasta.
- Bio-based powders: made from partially or 100% plant based raw materials. One company supplying various grades is Arkema, including 100% bio-based produced from castor oil.
An important note in this regard: the use of compostable filaments is not a licence to litter. In all cases, appropriate end-of-life disposal routes must be established, even if a product comes with degradable properties. In that case, proper disposal - in the organic waste stream - should be ensured.
A playground for designers
The potential for 3D printing to disrupt the way in which a product is designed, developed and manufactured is huge. Additive technologies require designers to completely rethink their design approaches and open up new ways of overcoming typical design constraints. 3D printing allows designers to focus on geometries that are hard or impossible to otherwise manufacture, enable the individualisation of products, design spare parts, and more.