3D Printing Sustainability - Discover the sustainable aspects of 3D Printing

04 May, 2022

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3D Printing Sustainability - Discover the sustainable aspects of 3D Printing

There are many ways to be more sustainable and respectful to our planet. One key way lies within production. How can this process become more sustainable while still being competitive?

Taking care of our planet is one of the most critical challenges in the 21st century.  And being more sustainable is one key aspects for many companies and businesses. There are many ways to be more sustainable and respectful to our planet. One key way lies within production. How can this process become more sustainable while still being competitive? Increasingly additive manufacturing has been discussed and already implemented for answering this question. With its innovative production technologies that are offering a greener way to produce products, AM can be the road to sustainability. 

But what exactly are the sustainable benefits of using 3D printing? Let’s find out!


What is 3D printing?

3D printing is a collective term for all additive technologies under this manufacturing umbrella. Additive manufacturing adds layer after layer of material to create the desired product. On the other hand, traditional manufacturing approaches usually need a mold or a material block to start the production process.  

There are quite a few different 3D printing technologies, such as Multi Jet Fusion and Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), specializing in powder filament printing. 

Filament materials are differentiated into polymer and metal. Polymer filaments are printed mainly using Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) technology, and metal parts are produced via Direct Metal Sintering (DMLS)/ Selective Laser Sintering (SLM) technology. When printing resin, there are multiple printing options as well, like Stereolithography (SLA), Digital Light Processing (DLP)/ Liquid Crystal Display (LCD)Polyjet, and CLIP technology. 

If you want to know more about how 3D-printing works, check out our ultimate 3D-printing guide


Discover the sustainable aspects of 3D printing

Additive manufacturing offers many sustainable aspects that make it stand out compared to other methods. A few of them overlap with one another, but there are about five core aspects. Let’s take a look at those five!

1. Freedom of Design 

Freedom of Design is a term that is heavily linked to additive manufacturing. As 3D printing is a computer-to-part method, computer-based models are indispensable, and this is where freedom of design comes in. While creating those models, the prospect of 3D printing gives the designer the freedom to design a piece that traditionally could not be manufactured. The focus shifts from developing a part that is producible to a part that is printable as well as sustainable within that. Lattice structures can be added during the design process, or unnecessary material can even be reduced from the model. In this context, the word “Topology Optimization” is often mentioned. It is a software feature that improves the geometry of a part to figure out where an object needs material and where the material has no use for the efficiency and performance of the later product and is simply there for aesthetic reasons. Creating the best optimization of a part is often interrelated with less material and thus less use of raw material in the process. 

Freedom of Design can also allow for designing integrated parts. Frequently while manufacturing traditionally, parts have to be split, produced separately, and then assembled again to create the finished product. Additive manufacturing skips most of these steps by directly printing the needed part in one go, saving material, time, and money in the process. 

However, the sustainable aspect of freedom of design does not end there. Parts that, for example, are used within the transportation sector also help to relieve the environment. Because the more a plane or a car weighs, the more carbon dioxide is emitted. But if lighter parts are installed, it can reduce the carbon dioxide output. 

2. Lower material waste  

As mentioned in the paragraph above, freedom of design can help reduce the needed material within production. However, additive manufacturing usually needs less raw material than traditional manufacturing, even without an optimized part. This is due to the fact that the 3D printing method only prints precisely as much as the model from the 3D file requires by adding layer by layer. Subtractive manufacturing processes operate the opposite way. A material block is required, and the product is created by removing part of that material rather than adding it. In some cases, the removed parts can be reused, but often they end up in the bin as waste. 

Filaments are printed directly, while powder-printed parts are made within a powder bed. During that process, not all powder is used. However, it is possible to mix the unprinted powder with new powder and then use that combination for the next print run. This also minimizes the material waste within 3D printing. 

3. Sustainable Materials

The filament sector is the clear front runner for sustainable materials. There are quite a few sustainable options available, whether in powder or filament – they are characterized above all by the fact that they are either recyclable or not entirely made of virgin plastic. 

  • PA11 

Ultrasint® PA11 is a Forward AM powder material. It is based on a 100% renewable biomass – castor seed. Oil is made from the seed, converted into a monomer, and polymerized into Polyamide 11. This PA11 material is a sustainable alternative to PA12.

  • PLA

PLA (polylactic acid) plastic is a filament material and often uses cornstarch as a raw material. It is one of the most popular 3D printing materials. 

  • rPET

Ultrafuse® rPET is another sustainable filament material from Forward AM. rPET is a recycled material made from PET medical equipment, post-industrial, and not out of virgin plastic. Ultrafuse® rPET reduces the carbon footprint by reducing the need to collect new raw materials and conserves energy and natural resources.

Other companies like Fiberlogy offer recycled materials as well. Fiberlogy uses recycled, non-virgin materials to produce their rPLA, rABS, and rNylon line. 

  • TPC 45D

The Ultrafuse® TPC 45D is a high-performance filament elastomer that uses 40% rapeseed oil instead of mineral oil. This bio-based and flexible material delivers high performances without a significant environmental impact. 

  • PETG 

The company Redline Filaments produces an “Industrial Recycled” PETG from injection molding PETG waste. The waste does not come from virgin PETG and was not in contact with potential contaminants. 

The company Reflow offers an rPETG filament. They use medical tray production waste to produce recycled filament. 

  • Algae material 

3D Printlife Algix ALGA does not recycle old materials to create sustainable options but instead chooses another way. They use algae to produce various filaments like PLA, ABS, and Nylon. However, the product does not consist entirely of algae but also contains virgin PLA. 

  • Fishing Nets 

Fishing nets are one of the biggest environmental problems in our oceans, and there are a lot of nets that can’t be used anymore for their intended purpose. Fishy Filaments have used those nets and converted them into a Nylon filaments. As the company tries to renounce additives as much as possible, the filaments have a green color. 

4. Digital inventory and less overproduction

Using additive manufacturing can revolutionize any inventory. Usually, businesses are owning huge inventory buildings, where spare and overproduced parts are stored. This way has many disadvantages. The physical inventory costs a lot of money for energy, labor, etc., and depending on how long the parts are kept there, they may break or are no longer usable and need to be disposed of. Thus being a waste of material and energy. 

Additive manufacturing offers the option to use a digital inventory. If a part is needed, it can simply be printed on demand and sent to the customer. This does not only help to fight overproduction nowadays but also is exceptionally cost-effective and more efficient. Overproduction is a big problem, especially in industries like fashion. Many pieces that were not sold after a season or two are quickly disposed of, which means that the raw materials used to produce the product were used for nothing or stored in a physical inventory.

A digital inventory also comes in handy when a customer needs spare parts for a product bought many years ago. For traditional manufacturing, those spare parts must be stored and kept for years. With additive manufacturing, the spare part can be printed out of the digital inventory and does take up space in a physical inventory.  

5. Repair work

Printing spare parts through a digital inventory can also have another advantage – when additive manufacturing is used to repair older products like cars or machines. If the parts are no longer available, they can be remade with 3D printing and then used to repair the broken part. With this practice, fewer products have to be disposed of. And less raw material has to be used to produce brand new products. 

Of course, this practice can not be applied every time and is a case-to-case situation.


What is next?

However, as of right now, additive manufacturing is not the perfect cure-all, and even though many aspects are heading in the right direction, there is still room for improvement. There should be more sustainable material options and less 3D printing material made out of virgin plastic. Plus, additive manufacturing can make more progress when it comes to recycling initiatives, especially for produced prototypes and iterations. So it is important to have steady progress toward those improvements to become even more sustainable. 

The importance of sustainability in manufacturing as well as in general will only grow in the future and has to be addressed. 3D printing is an innovative manufacturing technique, and experts all over the industry are expecting it to play an even bigger role in the upcoming years. How big this role will be is difficult to predict, however, there is still great potential for new sustainable materials and even less waste production. 

If you want to use 3D printing to make your business more sustainable and have questions concerning that topic, our expert team at Sculpteo is happy to help!

Of course, 3D printers are not very cheap if you want to print a part or a series. But there is a solution! You can upload your 3D model and we as an online 3D printing service are doing the rest and sending you your part as soon as it is finished. 

If you want to learn more about 3D printing, we encourage you to subscribe to our newsletter and check out our extensive Learning Hub with many interesting articles. 

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