How 3D Printing Is Making Manufacturing More Sustainable!

There’s no sugar-coating it — we have a crisis on our hands. The climate is changing, our landfills and oceans are gradually filling up with plastic, and many other problems loom on the horizon. Fortunately, 3D printing can help us …

Ile Kauppila

June 29, 2022

There’s no sugar-coating it — we have a crisis on our hands. The climate is changing, our landfills and oceans are gradually filling up with plastic, and many other problems loom on the horizon. Fortunately, 3D printing can help us transform manufacturing.

Not only does 3D printing help manufacturing become cheaper and more efficient, but it can also aid us in making it more sustainable. By introducing 3D printers to your workshop, you can reduce waste, slash carbon emissions, save money and resources by keeping your equipment running longer, and much more.

Read on to find out how 3D printing unlocks new opportunities in making manufacturing more sustainable.

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6 Ways 3D Printers Help Manufacturing Go Green

Just like it offers a great variety of productivity benefits, 3D printing does a lot to improve sustainability. It can help both small and large businesses, as all of them depend on certain key supply chains and manufacturing methods. With 3D printers, you too can do your part in preserving our planet.

Let’s explore the most significant ways 3D printing is turning manufacturing green.

1) Less Waste

Traditional manufacturing methods — like CNC machining — fall under the umbrella of subtractive manufacturing. This means that to create a part, manufacturers start with a chunk of material, whether metal or plastic, and gradually tool and whittle it down to the desired shape. As a result, up to 50% or more of the original material can end up as wasted shavings on the factory floor.

3D printing, on the other hand, is an additive manufacturing technology. Instead of sculpting a part out of a piece of material, 3D printers construct parts layer by layer. It’s an extremely low-waste manufacturing method that can slash material waste by up to 90% when compared to traditional tooling.

Consequently, fabricating the same part using 3D printers consumes much fewer material resources than creating it through traditional manufacturing. It also produces less unusable waste material.

2) Less Standing Inventory

But what about injection moulding? Sure, you’ll need to manufacture the moulds, but apart from that, it doesn’t produce much waste. However, 3D printing has a significant advantage over injection moulding.

Injection moulding often requires manufacturers to order large numbers of parts to make it economical. Manufacturing these potentially unnecessary extra parts wastes resources.

Additionally, that large number of parts needs to be stored somewhere. Warehouses can consume incredible amounts of electricity and fuel to keep the heaters running and lights on.

Some 3D printing technologies — like SLS — enable low-volume manufacturing of parts with comparable detail accuracy to injection moulding. Manufacturers can produce the exact number of parts they need when they need them. There’s no need to maintain storage facilities where parts sit on shelves potentially for years.

3) Shorter Supply Chains

Traditional manufacturers often operate from centralized locations from which they serve customers all around the world. Shipping parts and products across the globe consumes great quantities of fuel and results in enormous greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, the transportation sector produces the largest quantities of greenhouse gases.

In the best-case scenario, 3D printing can eliminate shipping completely. If you run your own 3D printers in-house, there’s simply no need to ship parts. You just walk to the printer to pick the part up — no carbon emissions and no resource expenditure, apart from your lunch.

But even if you can’t operate in-house printers, 3D printing enables distributed manufacturing. Prior to printing, 3D printable parts exist only as digital CAD models. You can find the 3D printing service provider closest to the location where your parts are needed and commission their printers to produce the part, significantly shortening delivery distances.

4) Better Product Design

3D printing enables manufacturers to create parts that are tailored precisely to their applications. Technologies like topology optimization and part consolidation make it possible to find the perfect structural shapes for parts and combine multiple parts into one component.

As a result, we can build parts that consume less material but offer comparable — or better — mechanical and structural properties. Manufacturers can save money in material and assembly costs, while also saving precious raw materials and resources for other uses.

Additionally, 3D printing can use materials that are both lighter and stronger than those used in traditional manufacturing. For example, it may be possible to replace aluminium components with carbon fibre-reinforced thermoplastics. Lighter end-use parts are more fuel-efficient, again reducing fuel consumption and greenhouse emissions.

5) Easy Spare Parts Production

Imagine you use an old machine that’s gone out of production — and then it breaks. There are no spare parts on the market, so your only option is to scrap the old machine and buy a new one. Or is it?

Thanks to 3D printers, manufacturers can produce spare parts for positively ancient machinery. By repairing old machines with 3D printed components, you won’t have to waste the money, fuel, and resources it would take to manufacture a new machine for the same application.

In some cases, you may even be able to improve the original parts by making them lighter, more durable, or more aerodynamic. Not only will you extend the lifespan of your machinery, but you can also make them run better and consume less energy.

6) Recycling Materials

Some 3D printing technologies enable manufacturers to recycle waste materials into fully functional, usable feedstocks. It’s possible to shred failed or unneeded prints or plastic waste — like bottles and containers — and turn them into industrial-quality FFF filaments. Some 3D printers can even use the shredded waste as is, eliminating even the energy spent on filament extrusion.

Other printers, like SLS machines, can recycle material that was used but not melted in previous print runs. Formlabs Fuse 1 can print with up to 70% recycled nylon powder.

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Challenges with 3D Printing Sustainability

Although 3D printing is more sustainable than traditional manufacturing, it’s not a silver-bullet solution to saving the planet. There are still some obstacles that have to be removed before 3D printing can enable a truly circular economy.

Limitations in Recycling

We may be able to recycle some 3D printing materials, but we can’t recycle all of them. Plastic resins for SLA printing are one of the largest offenders in this category. Printer manufacturers and researchers are working hard to find ways to recycle these toxic resins, but at the moment, it’s simply not possible.

Metal powders used in metal 3D printing are also difficult to recycle. You can reuse them a certain number of times, but eventually, the heat of the 3D printer degrades them to the point that they’re just not safe to use. They will then generally end up in a landfill — and metal doesn’t biodegrade or compost.

Even with materials that we can recycle, there is the issue of economics. For example, there are relatively few FFF filament manufacturers using recycled plastic because virgin plastic filaments are currently cheaper.

Low Waste but Not No Waste

3D printers produce little waste, but they’re not zero waste machines. The largest sources of waste in 3D printing are supports and failed prints.

Many 3D printing technologies, like FFF and SLA, require supports — thin structures that prevent part deformation during printing. After the printer finishes, these supports need to be removed.

It can be difficult or impossible to recycle the supports, so they create a small but significant waste stream. You can mitigate this issue with good part and support design, but you can’t completely eliminate supports.

Failed prints are another significant waste source. If a print job fails for any reason, the botched part simply can’t be used. Due to the lack of large-scale industry-wide recycling efforts, they often go into the rubbish bin. A good understanding of printer operation and part design can help fix the most common 3D printing failures.

Finally, there’s the issue of post-processing. Due to the nature of additive manufacturing, practically all 3D printers produce some visible layering on part surfaces. If perfectly smooth surfaces are a requirement, you’ll need to grind the final parts, which produces plastic or metal dust.

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3D Printers Can Be Energy Hogs

Every machine needs energy to run — even 3D printers. Or perhaps we should say, especially 3D printers.

Some 3D printing technologies, particularly metal ones, can consume very large amounts of energy. In some cases, a 3D printer can consume more energy during production than a CNC machine.

However, when you take the entire production chain into account, 3D printing does result in fewer emissions and lower energy consumption than traditional manufacturing. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t need to do more research and development to make printers more energy-efficient.

Our Sustainability Efforts

There is a way we can attempt to offset the small but inevitable ecological impact of 3D printing. Responsible printer manufacturers, users, and retailers can engage in environmental programs to further boost the sustainability of their machines.

For example, Solid Print3D’s sustainability efforts include our partnership with Ecologi. We’re committed to planting 500 trees for every single 3D printer our customers purchase. In total, we’ve helped plant more than 10,000 trees that have offset 100 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions — comparable to 192,724 miles driven in a car.

We also support 3D Printing Waste, a fellow UK-based company that works to reduce the amount of 3D printing waste going to landfills. Together, we’ve recycled, upcycled, and pelletised failed prints and used supports back into usable 3D printing materials.

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Turning Manufacturing More Sustainable Layer by Layer

It’s true that more research and work are needed to make 3D printing live up to its full ecological potential. But even so, the technology already makes a significant contribution to sustainability in manufacturing.

With local production, reduced waste, and improved part design, we can make a real impact on helping our planet. As machines and materials advance, this impact will only get larger with every printed layer.

For more information on 3D printing and sustainability, get in touch with the experts at Solid Print3D! Call us at 01926 333 777 or email us at info@solidprint3d.co.uk.

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