A few years ago 3D printing was celebrated greener than any other conventional manufacturing technology. Today, information is much more qualified when it comes to 3D printing and its ecological impact. But as everybody knows by now the ‘zero waste’ statement has been proved as a myth. But how eco-friendly is 3D printing by now? I would like to illuminate this subject a little bit today. Anticipatory, 3D printing is still greener than lots of other production methods, but, of course, there are always things that have to be developed either on the home printing side or on the industrial printing side. In our case, the 3D printing industry has definitely to work on the waste management and the reduction of energy. Fortunately, the big players in the business have already started to pave the way for becoming greener.
After considering the eco-friendly status of 3D printing, in general, we will focus on four subjects: the raw materials, the use of energy, the waste management and a forecast what should be improved for the future. Enjoy!
The Status Quo 2015
The status by know, 3D printing has not reached the level to declare itself to be fully eco-friendly. Nevertheless, the predominant ethos of a successful 3D printing company is nowadays to provide products that offer high quality and are eco-friendly at the same time. The grade of environment-friendliness depends not only on the final product, furthermore it is influenced by the choice of material and the amount of material which is actually used for 3D printing in comparison to conventional manufacturing. The waste management needs to be considered as well.
What can be stated in general about 3D printing (maker community as well as industrial 3D printing) in 2015:
- the production method is in general not toxic
- the production method is very noise reduced
- the production method is extremely safe compared to other industrial methods
- more efficient use of raw materials compared to traditional processes
- some materials are already fully biodegradable (e.g. PLA)
- shortening supply chains as it can be used as production on demand
- reducing transportation pollution by removing the need for intermediate and finished goods to be shipped from A-B
- it reforms the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industry as it helps immensely to reduce the need of animal testing through the innovative progress in tissue printing (see articles on L’Oreal, Merck and Procter & Gamble)
Are the Raw Materials Eco-Friendly?
Choosing the right materials and the right amount of materials is always important, regardless if you are a hobbyist or a company. It is essential for 3D printing as well. At the moment, there are 2 material families that are mainly used in industrial 3D printing: plastics (mainly several kinds of polyamide – see blog articles on PA 11, PA 12, Alumide) and metal. Yes, the industry is aware metal printing requires extreme heat and is less eco-friendly compared to using plastic, but it is needed in special industries, such as aerospace and medical devices. The good thing, 3D printing uses only as many metal powder as the product requires and a percentage of the metal powder, depending on the requirements of the product and the metal, can be used for more than one printing process (see blog article on silver printing). Furthermore, the industry has the environmental issue in mind and is working on biodegradable metals.
Of course, when possible, the 3D printing industry, as well as the maker community, should use plastics instead of metals as their need less energy.
Plastics are used by the 3D printing industry as well as the maker community. While the one is using diverse kinds of polyamide powders and the method of laser sintering, the maker community is using filaments and home printers, which are based in general on the FDM method (see blog article PLA/ABS). Here, some plastics are eco-friendlier and healthier than others. PLA, for example, is totally ecological, shows better printing result and requires less energy to print than ABS. However, neither ABS nor PLA is a material which is suitable for industrial use.
The industry has been investing money in material science for a while now. However, it is quite challenging to find materials that not only suit the 3D printing process, but fulfill the quality requirements as well. Besides the industry and research at diverse institutes over the world, there are some experimental projects going on. Maybe some remember our blog article on 3D printed glass and Markus Kayser’s solar sinter project. He tries to 3D print glass by using 100% renewable energy, non-toxic materials, and a local environment. At the moment, it can only be performed in an extreme environment like the desert as heaps of solar energy is needed. If his method could be standardized, there would be a 100% eco-friendly 3D glass printing.
Is 3D Printing Energy-Efficient?
When it comes to the topic energy efficiency, 3D printing needs definitely to improve. There are studies which cope with the topic 3D printing and energy efficiency but, unfortunately, most of these studies focus on home printers and not the industrial productions. Of course, if you compare the energy use of a home printer with an industrial printer you compare an oven with a nuclear reactor. Industrial printers need much more energy as they need to print a much bigger amount of objects with constant quality value and diverse materials.
Most of this studies use a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) to analyze the correlation between additive manufacturing and energy-efficiency. Megan Kreiger and Joshua Pearce (University of Michigan) used in their study three precise 3D printed plastic products as examples. They compared PA, ABS and PLA on the most common printers used in the open source community. The results indicate that distributed manufacturing using open-source 3D printers has the potential to have a lower environmental impact than conventional manufacturing for a variety of products. (see chart below)
The industrial players, in particular the German 3D printing company EOS, started to set up its own life cycle cooperation with EADS IW in the field of aerospace to reduce energy waste.
All studies have the following points in common to make 3D printing more energy-efficient and eco-friendlier:
- energy reduction through the development of printers that run quicker and, therefore, can work with a reduce running time
- prefer printing hollow parts rather than solid as it needs less energy
- orient parts for the fastest printing (tall parts lying on the sides)
- figure out the best orientation for the use of the least support material
- try to fill the printer bed up
How is 3D Printing Handling the Waste Management?
Waste management is one of the areas which might be most important for 3D printing. What can be stated right now, there is an awareness towards the topic waste management. Nevertheless, in general, 3D printing produces less waste than other processes, but the waste management can be still challenging and needs to be improved:
- for some complex products (material mix) the recycling can be tricky
- the labeling of the materials which were used in products
- the recycling of the support material
- the recycling rate of the used powder
Will the Journey Be the Reward to Increase the Sustainability?
There are definitely still lots of things to improve to make 3D printing, especially industrial 3D printing, greener. But, it is obvious the industry has already started to choose the ‘right journey’ to be the reward. Of course, there are still several points where 3D printing should be improved:
- lower energy consumption during the manufacturing process by inventing new printers
- upgrade percentage of recycling of powdered or molten polymers that are now left behind without quality loss
- instead of using plastic for long lasting objects, use more sustainable materials (e.g. metal)
- create greener product life circles by using computer generated designs and simulations; only the final product will be printed (e.g. see new ‘chameleon’ material MIT)
- to expand 3D printing in the field of aerospace: 3D printed metal parts which are computer-designed with optimized weight will consume less fuel during its lifetime
- integrate 3D printing in process chains to shorten the material waste during post processing
- shortening global supply chains through on-demand production
In sum, 3D printing is actually not aiming for substituting most of the already existing industrial processes, but it might hopefully supplement them and will support to make industrial production eco-friendlier. Moreover, the 3D printing industry is working on the above-mentioned topics to get eco-friendlier itself.
We as trinckle 3D and MeltWerk try to do our best to be eco-friendly by trying to improve our waste management, by trying to reduce failure printings and trying to use our building space as efficient as we can. If you have any questions on the topic eco-friendliness, do not hesitate to ask when ordering next time.
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