3D printing is now driving the sustainability agenda

Critics of 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, have long cited the technology’s reliance on plastic filament as the primary print material, and it would seem that - with the global focus on reducing plastic wastage – they have a point.

Or do they? Has 3D printing now reached a maturity level where it can not only support the sustainability agenda, but actively drive it? From on demand local product manufacture that is set to eradicate huge swathes of an energy sapping international supply chain to global collaboration on innovative products and the adoption of recyclables at every stage of the process from concept to delivery, 3D printing is heralding a new era of sustainable, energy efficient production.

More critically, Paul Croft, Director of 3DGBIRE and Ultimaker GB and Founder of the Create Education project argues, the portability and low cost of 3D printers is now opening the door to the next generation of innovative thinkers who will use the technology in tandem with tools such as Artificial Intelligence to create extraordinary solutions to many of the pressing environmental issues.

Additive Value

3D printing has provoked excitement and trepidation in equal measure. Proponents of the technology have cited a world of new possibilities for all industries, lowered transportation costs and environmental impacts, reduced waste, and minimised reliance on corporations by enabling the maker movement. Certainly, additive manufacturing demands significant less raw products than traditional subtractive manufacturing processes.

However, it is also true that early additive manufacturing techniques, particularly for top end industrial products, are very energy intensive. In addition, its reliance on plastic filament – many of which cannot be recycled – has enabled sceptics to argue that the societal, political, economic, and environmental impacts of the technology have not yet been studied extensively.

But both the technology and the industry have evolved hugely in recent years. Filaments are getting stronger, resolutions are improving, and a wider variety of materials can be printed with additive manufacturing, including metals. The result has been a raft of innovations in areas such as airplane and engine manufacture where the development of lighter components (light-weighting) has enabled very significant reductions in energy consumption, providing considerable support in meeting targets for cutting fossil fuel usage.

Local on Demand

It is the way in which additive manufacturing can be deployed, however, that is fundamentally changing ideas about sustainability and putting 3D printing at the front of the sustainability agenda. Desktop 3D printers are helping small companies prototype and manufacture at low costs with increasing quality while industrial 3D printers, once almost exclusively used for prototyping, are being rolled out on production lines. Furthermore, collaboration is being enabled globally through the creation of additive manufacturing standards, providing a chance for organisations of all sizes to cost effectively innovate and work together.

Critically this standardisation is driving the creation of filament that can be used at every stage of the process, from prototype through to production, enabling companies to leverage the growing options for recyclable filaments throughout the production cycle – whilst also gaining the economic benefits that are essential to competitive yet sustainable operational strategies.

The low cost and footprint of 3D printers is also, in my opinion, providing a chance to radically change the way products are manufactured and delivered - especially for spare parts. Rather than manufacturing in bulk in the Far East and transporting at huge environmental cost to Europe for expensive storage within a warehouse, using a 3D printer parts can be created on demand. This is already being explored within difficult to access locations such as oil rigs (with obvious benefits) and fleets such as the Dutch navy 3D printing spare parts on the go.

Reducing the energy consumption associated with mass production, transport and distribution by embracing local, on demand additive manufacturing could and should deliver very significant long term benefits and is a model that plays strongly into the sustainability agenda.

Collaboration and Agility

The other fundamental and increasingly essential benefit of this model is the agility it brings. Just consider the speed with which the food industry is being forced to respond to the recent outcry about the use of plastics within supermarkets. From eradicating black, unrecyclable plastic food trays to embracing compostable bags for loose fruit and vegetables, these developments are demanding innovative thinking and unprecedented change that will affect the entire supply chain.

The adoption of local on demand manufacture, backed up by effective collaboration that allows large companies and small innovators to work closely together will be increasingly essential to addressing the sustainability challenges we have created over the past century.  The innovation currently occurring within filament production is a case in point, with manufacturers taking waste plastic from traditional subtractive manufacturing to create a filament that can be successfully 3D printed – essentially creating value from a waste product.

Add to this the incredible developments that are occurring from combining 3D printing with AI – such as the use of a robotic arm to print incredibly complex designs in a fraction of the time, making 3D printing at scale possible - and processes are set to be optimised in a way that humans simply could not have envisaged: the new solutions that are being developed to reduce wastage and increase reuse are incredibly exciting.

Inspiring the Future

3D printing is a technology that is enabling people to think differently, providing a chance for organisations and individuals to collaborate and be innovative about how materials are used, when and where. There is also a chance to give the younger generation access not only to the technology but also to encourage them to think on a broader societal, sustainable, environmental level; to inspire them to make essential changes in the future.

Just consider the amazing Project Seafood, where a young Swiss pair travelled along the Mediterranean coastline of Spain collecting household plastic waste from beaches and transforming it into usable 3D printed objects – all from the back of a camper van. Or Project Milestone in Eindhoven, Netherlands, which, in 2019, will see the first habitable homes produced via 3D printing, and is also expected to reduce costs and any potential environmental damage by minimising the quantity of cement used in construction. 

There are so many motivated individuals who are now using 3D printing to make positive changes, to demonstrate how the world can address its sustainability challenges. The fact is that 3D printing is not the problem: it is a mature, portable and accessible global technology that is providing a chance to solve our problems. Creating a sustainable global world will take new thinking – the 3D printing industry is set to play a key role in inspiring, motivating and empowering the next generation of thinkers with the confidence and ability to reconsider the way world’s resources are utilised and provide them with the ability to make essential changes.

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