3D printing is an ever-evolving technology. Previously, prototypes were crafted from a block of material that left behind unnecessary waste, but these days, 3D printing involves intelligent production that uses less material and is, therefore, more sustainable than ever.
A study released on April 25th 2022 discusses the development of a novel tool used to assess the environmental impact of 3D printing technologies from a pharmaceutical perspective in support of the sustainability of additive manufacturing.
While 3D printing is thought to be a less wasteful technique, the question of where it ranks on the green scale remains unanswered. Is it really true that it is environmentally friendly?
This article will help to clear up any discrepancies about the environmental impact of 3D printing by delving into the myths and realities of the situation.
Sustainability in 3D Printing
Sustainable production of 3D printing refers to manufacturing practices that reduce energy usage and waste. In a world where technology presides, 3D printing can indeed be considered a green option when compared to other technological manufacturing processes, given that it generates a low amount of waste. Indeed, according to a study by the European Commission, it is predicted that by 2050, additive manufacturing can save up to 90% of the raw material used in other types of manufacturing.
What does the research say?
An overview of the latest studies on sustainability in metal additive manufacturing was published in November 2020.
According to the research, substituting aircraft parts with topology-optimised 3D-printed parts could reduce overall aircraft weight by 4 to 7 percent while simultaneously reducing fuel consumption by 6.4 percent.
Small reductions in weight across the hundreds of parts used to construct an aircraft or fleet can soon equate to a huge reduction in the overall weight of the craft.
Circular Economy Potential of 3D Printing
Despite the many environmental benefits of 3D printing, it is still strongly believed that much more is yet to be done to achieve long-term sustainability in 3D printing. Notably, given the significance of 3D printing in society, it could make massive contributions towards accomplishing circularity in production and this idea has garnered much attention in the techno-economic world.
7 ways 3D printing helps you become sustainable
More and more businesses are reconsidering their production practices with a view to using more sustainable materials that all the while maintain efficiency and save on costs. This has indeed given rise to the prevalence of additive manufacturing (AM) in today’s society.
In fact, companies are in some ways obliged to make changes as a means of adhering to environmental regulations. This dedication to sustainability has resulted in effective solutions and enhancements in 3D printing.
Here are some of the ways AM is helping to promote sustainability in 3D printing:
3D printers are able to make objects with dimensions that are difficult to create when using standard manufacturing methods.
Reparability & Spare Parts
Regardless of the 3D printing technology used, recent evidence regarding maintenance, repair, and the manufacturing of spare parts demonstrates that metal additive manufacturing has progressed from investigation to production.
Use Less Raw Materials
Rather than sculpting an item from a big piece of metal or plastic, 3D printing meticulously crafts products layer by layer. This results in significantly less scrap waste when compared to traditional manufacturing techniques such as injection molding. The finished product always amounts to between 70% and 90% of the material used.
3D printers are compact in design and can be carried easily from place to place. This allows you to produce parts and prototypes locally rather than importing from further afield. This, in itself, carries less of an impact on the environment, as it avoids the emissions generated by transportation.
3D printing also minimises inventory and, as a result, the money and space invested in warehousing.
Additive manufacturing, unlike other production methods, is a computer-to-part technique, meaning that no tooling or molds are needed and fewer tools, parts, and procedures are required.
Small businesses benefit from 3D printing technology because it allows for mass customisation, making the manufacturing process more effective and allowing items to be personalised to meet the needs of specific clients.
3D Printing Sustainability Challenges
Despite the sustainability features and potential, 3D printing is not a completely green practice. There are still so many environmental issues in 3D printing in 2022 that need to be addressed.
Lack of Recycling Initiatives
3D printing, which, on the one hand, essentially produces less waste than traditional manufacturing technologies, uses plastic as a feedstock. This potentially increases the global plastic crisis. Sustainable solutions need to be found for this challenge.
Lightweight designs enabled by 3D printing can result in significant energy savings in the long run, yet energy consumption during the manufacturing process of 3D printing still remains high and is something yet to be addressed.
What do we do with used resin?
Used or residual resin in 3D printing can be discarded or used in future printing processes. There are various steps involved in securely reusing 3D printing resin because of the chemicals used in the manufacturing process.
Don’t 3D printers use a lot of electricity?
Yes, they do, but energy consumption does vary depending on technology and material and the part that is being printed.
The inhalation of hazardous chemicals or substances, skin exposure to toxic chemicals or solvents, and the chance of fire and explosion are all potential health hazards of 3D printing. Several printers operate at high temperatures, which also puts users are risk of being burned.
The Sustainability Verdict!
In the future, manufacturing is most likely to be a hybrid of traditional and 3D printing processes. The latter is more resource-efficient and allows for more streamlined and novel designs, which helps to reduce production costs. Also, 3D printing in 2022 is greener, cheaper, and more sustainable, yet there are still improvements and changes to be made.