How Sustainable is 3D Printing?

This current world and age we’re living in is evolving incredibly fast, and you may agree it is happening quicker than we can possibly assimilate. As technologies, such as 3D printing, expand exponentially, we begin to see a bubble about …

Alejandro Auerbach

July 23, 2021

This current world and age we’re living in is evolving incredibly fast, and you may agree it is happening quicker than we can possibly assimilate. As technologies, such as 3D printing, expand exponentially, we begin to see a bubble about to burst. Now, in conjunction with the massification of health and feeding, manufacturing activities to sustain the overwhelming growth in population and market demand, we face perhaps humanity’s greatest challenge in its history: sustaining not just our livelihood but also our existence as species. Are we up to the task? How conscious are we really? Is it manageable enough?

How do we make the best out of our available resources to sustain human activity as efficiently and clean as possible while keeping it friendly to our planet? Can technology be part of the solution? And, if it is, can 3D printing help reduce the environmental impact attributed to traditional means of production? How can we make 3D printing more sustainable? How do we further promote environmental consciousness in our supply chains? Among the many issues we now face, I want to address three critical environmental concerns: Plastics waste, energy consumption and air pollution. So, what are the repercussions we’re now facing in this day and age? It is a broad subject and goes beyond the scope of this article; thankfully, the following video is a nice starting point.

3D Printing as an Alternative to Traditional Means

Yes, it is evident that 3D printing further promotes the use of resources like plastics; nowadays anyone can have a printer on his desk. However, this technology is well known for its disruptive nature in the manufacturing area due to its contribution to streamlining processes in versatility and efficiency. So, is it possible for 3D printing to improve sustainability when compared to traditional means? Let’s break it up into each aspect.

Is Additive Manufacturing a Convincing Alternative to Subtractive Waste?

Let’s start with the obvious, 3D printing is additive in contrast to traditional subtractive techniques. Of course, additive manufacturing isn’t flawless in this regard; it can generate waste from support structures, and powder bed consumables aren’t 100% reusable. Nevertheless, machining, for instance, can generate lots of waste material in large volumes that require extra resources and processing cycles to manage and repurpose; that is only if the material is recyclable in the first place.

Now for the great stuff, 3D printing is probably best known for the design freedom it provides its users to make parts with the most intricate geometries. And, what does it have to do with sustainability? Well, a lot. The combination of a digital workflow and the ability to optimise the use of materials has vast repercussions. Generative design software solutions like topology optimisation and lattice arrangements enable designs with the minimum usage of materials, just where it’s needed. The other aspect of this design freedom is the ability to consolidate whole assemblies into single parts. By taking assembly joints and weldment procedures out of the equation, production and sorting out recycling materials becomes simpler.

Energy Consumption of 3D Printing

Leaving aside for a moment material waste, let’s focus on the process and its repercussions regarding energy consumption and emissions. Researchers don’t seem to get to an agreement on the issue, and it is quite understandable. Defining the impact of 3D printing processes depends on the context and many factors, like which AM technology are we referring to. Is it a desktop or industrial production? What is your brand selection? How is the performance of the machine, materials and parameters you use? With this in mind, I’ll do my best to ponder a conclusion from the following reasoning.

Suppose you consider a standard desktop FDM printer with a standard build volume, printing standard PLA. In that case, the electricity consumption is around 50kW, which is within the range of turning on one incandescent lightbulb. Then from the total amount, most of the power is consumed by the hotbed, where you must consider two factors: Temperature and build area. So, if you print materials that require high bed temperatures like ABS with a large 3D printer, energy consumption can increase significantly. Therefore how can I tell if I’m managing energy efficiently while printing? One way to engage 3D printing a little more sustainably is to have further control and awareness of the energy you consume; try out this monitoring device!

Now, how about seeing this issue from a transportation perspective. Now we can say 3D printing has a huge advantage compared to traditional manufacturing due to, again, design freedom. As parts are manufactured with an optimal weight reduction and materials with high strength to weight ratio like carbon fibre composites replace metal parts, the result significantly reduces fuel consumption. For this reason, both the aerospace and the automotive industries have taken great interest in additive manufacturing since day one.

But, from a supply chain viewpoint, what about consumption from shipping logistics? Well, the digital thread that enables printers to manufacture custom parts in-house only needs to transport files throughout the internet, replacing cargo ships with cloud servers. Many industries benefit from this; one fitting example is the electronics industry, where 3D printing can help designers depend less on outsourcing manufacturing to the APAC region. Another example is the dental industry, where dentists can make custom guides, implants and mockups in-office. Even shipping companies like DHL are considering applying 3D printing to their distribution network. We’re just scratching the surface here; if you want to go deeper into the sustainable logistics of 3D printing, stay tuned for our next article!

3D Printing Emissions UFPs and VOCs

Before we end this article, I would like to address an important subject that remains relevant since the beginning of industrialisation: What happens to the air we breathe and the atmosphere we inhabit when we produce stuff? How does it apply to 3D printing? Again, it all depends on the context, and we must define a setting. Considering commercial desktop FDM printers, we know that they can emit ultrafine particles (UFP) and volatile organic compounds (VOC) with potential health hazards. But, to what extend? How should we prepare our spaces? To what extent should we invest in ventilation and filtration systems?

The Built Environment Research Group made compelling studies that can help us understand what is happening in the air as we use FDM printers indoors. The first study measured UFPs as some printers melted both PLA and ABS materials in a small room. The following graph gives us a broad perspective on the behaviour of UFPs in terms of concentrations and particle sizes.

Figure 1. UFPs in terms of concentrations and particle sizes in the air with the use of FDM printers

They concluded that 3D printers emission rates could be compared to cooking on a stove, operating laser printers or burning a cigarette. Conclusively they recommend taking precautions and invest in building a well-ventilated space. After this experiment, they continued to make further studies on the subject hoping to understand how to make 3d printing safer for everyone. Check out their story here and give them your love and support by sharing.

Fortunately, there’re many commercial solutions to manage UFPs. One outstanding example is the Ultimaker S5 Air Manager, which filters up to 95% of UFP emissions; also available at SolidPrint! For more information, please call SolidPrint at 01926 333 777 or email info@solidprint3d.co.uk.

Further Readings

In the upcoming article, we’ll go deeper into sustainable solutions by exploring 3D printing materials recyclability and alternative solutions, followed by why supply chains should adopt circular economies in this day and age.

If you want to read our latest updates, here they are:

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