3D Printing: A Green and Clean Alternative to Conventional Manufacturing

By 2050, non-biodegradable plastics will outgrow aquatic fauna in the oceans. Fine Particulate matter (PM 2.5) poisoning has outmatched the mortality rate of Covid-19 as well. How does 3D printing fit into this story? Read on to know more.

3D Printing Impact of Environment

It’s not an obscure fact that industrial manufacturing units have evolved to spur manufacturing technology. What people do miss however, is the harmful industrial wastes produced in the way.

Conventional manufacturing, in most cases, is subtractive in nature. It starts from a large block of material, and then is chipped away in order to get the final product.

This method, understandably, is wasteful in terms of efficiency, speed, and the number of materials used. It is worth mentioning thatthe cost of industrial manufacturing is skyrocketing, day by day.

Thus, the introduction of additive manufacturing (starting from zero) has been a revolution in terms of production speed and costs, as well as material efficiency. As the name suggests, this type of production involves building the final product from scratch, by modeling layer by layer, as we have discussed in other articles.

3D printing (interchangeable with additive manufacturing)_ may not be all that beneficial for the environment as a whole, or is it? That’s the question we’re going to be answering in this article.

How is 3D Printing Beneficial to the Environment?

The aforementioned point of the amount of material which is consumed during this type production is one of the strongest arguments going in the favor of 3D printing (additive manufacturing being beneficial for the environment).

Whilst that is the main argument in this regard, there are a few others which are worth pointing out –

Reduced carbon footprint

Printing materials such as PLA (polylactic acid) are plant-based rather than petroleum-based, and the production of these printing materials leads to almost 80% less emissions. Add to this the fact that these materials are much more reliable and melt easier, all while being degradable in certain conditions.

Decentralized construction

o 3D printing is better than traditional methods in terms of accessibility, as you don’t need a large manufacturing plant to make parts, rather you can print them in-house. This means less transportation, which directly results in fewer emissions.

Use of recycling

Pretty straightforward, most 3D printed objects are made from thermoplastics, which can often be recycled when these materials fail or are not of use. Recycling is the best way to dispose of these materials, rather than than dumping them.

Easy repair for parts

o Another way that 3D printing helps the environment is its ability to help in repairing equipment, as the required parts can be printed using 3D printers. Equipment need not go to waste if the solution is feasible and can be implemented using manufacturing of part

Current concerns of 3D Printing with Respect to the Environment

The above-mentioned points all seem to suggest that 3D printing is an all-round upgrade when it comes toenvironmental care.Low entry barrier and low costs of printing, have led to 3D printing’s adoption in numerous industries, like dental, aerospace, and automotive to name a few.

But there are a few improvements which must happen for 3D printing to minimize its impact on the environment as much as possible –

Printing materials and resins

3D Filament
3D printing filament, by westonhighschool library, Source is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via flickr

Some materials such as ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) are non-biodegradable in nature, and the PLA which we discussed earlier cannot be composted the normal way.

Alongside that, resins, which are used in the manufacturing process can be toxic to humans as well as ecosystems, especially marine flora and fauna.

As 3D printing garners more and more attention, these materials will be used widely, thus compounding up to the overall environmental impact.

Use of supports

As a 3D concept is printed from scratch, supports are used in order to make the build sturdy The final product can have overhang areas, which have to be handled due to the layer-by-layer approach of such type of manufacturing.

At the end of the print, these supports are removed during post-processing, which means that these parts will go to waste. This is a non-concern with regards to the subtractive manufacturing as the material can be approached in such a way so as to minimize any use of epoxy or adhesive materials.

The above can be prevented by designing the end product in such a way to prevent overhang which needs support.

Energy consumption

One of the areas where additive manufacturing is inferior to subtractive manufacturing is in terms of energy, specifically, electricity usage.

The fact that a material has to be melted or combined with a binder suggests that a lot of energy has to be spent on

melting/binding of the material. Research shows that 3D printing utilizes 50 to 100 times more electricity than traditional methods to make an object of the same weight.

Although this is more of a gray-area, if your electricity supply is coming from a renewable source, the impact to the environment is negligible. If it comes from a non-renewable resource like coal, then this extra energy used will add up.

3D printing is a relatively new field. Hence, the failure rate is slightly higher than other production technologies. Failed builds due to material not behaving as it should and/or due to deficiencies in the design cause some prints to go to waste.

Also worth pointing out is that most products printed using additive manufacturing require post-processing, be it in the form of removing the supports, or smoothening the surface. This contributes to waste accumulation when considering the number of parts manufactured. Techniques such as polyjet 3D printing can be adopted in most cases so as to minimize post-processing.

Some potential hazards

The final concern arises from the 3D printers themselves. Studies have found that little bits of plastic or some volatile compounds end up in the air whilst printing, and these are known to aggravate breathing problems such as asthma. This can be mitigated by encasing the 3D printer or assigning a separate room for all the 3D printers where it’s mandatory to wear industrial 3M masks.

How are certain startups and established companies helping in minimizing the impact?

We have seen additive manufacturing to be a boon, although withcertain drawbacks. Thus, environmental impact due to manufacturing with this process is not a chapter closed. Some start-ups have realized the immense value of additive manufacturing whilst acknowledging the fact that it has some drawbacks to our immediate surroundings and the long-term life on our planet, They created various solutions in order to keep the industry thriving while also minimizing its impact on the planet.

· ReDeTec, 3Devo

o These two companies aim to reduce post-processing waste in additive manufacturing. They do this by shredding the waste materials generated during manufacturingand then make fresh filament out of it.

· Refil

o Whilst the above two companies use the waste generated via manufacturing into usable filament, Refil takes in plastic generated by other industries such as automotive and packaging, and converts them into usable filament. They currently make 4 types of filament, namely, ABS, PET, PLA, HIPS.

· Francofil

o The above-mentioned companies are recycle plastic. this company develops filaments based off of natural sources such as mussel shells, oyster shells, rice waste, and coffee waste. They call this as NaturePlast.

· Print Your City!

o The use cases of the ReDeTec, 3Devo, Refil, and Francofil are limited to the 3D printing industry only. Print Your City uses plastic in order to create 3D printed furniture for cities, and have successfully done so with the collaboration of people so as to beautify their cities.

What Does the Future Hold ?

As we have seen, additive manufacturing has been a game-changer in terms of impact on the environment. Yet, there are still some areas in which improvements can, and are being made, in order to preserve our planet.

The past research and development in this industry has led to massive optimizations and new innovation, and we are hopeful for its future.

With leading start-ups filled with ambition and a common goal in mind, it is certain that the environmental impact of 3D printing will be dialed down as much as the current technologies allow.

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