What does it really mean when we say additive manufacturing is sustainable?

Advantage Engineering Sustainabile Additive ManufacturingWe live in a world where conversations about protecting the environment and saving the planet are on the rise. Manufacturers in all industries need to be more conscious of their impact on the world around them and make conscious decisions about what they do and how they do it.

A large number of manufacturers today are looking to shift a certain percentage of their production to additive manufacturing – also known as industrial 3D printing – because it is a smart way to reduce costs and optimize overall performance. An often-overlooked feature of this technology is its minimal wastage of materials and ability to incorporate recycled as well as environmentally friendly materials.

Compared to most other manufacturing processes, additive manufacturing is considered more sustainable.

Additive manufacturing relies on melting, fusing, binding, and sintering to slowly build parts from scratch, one step at a time. On the other hand, CNC machining – another commonly used manufacturing process – starts off with a block of plastic or metal and slowly chips away sections that aren’t needed to arrive at the final form. By design, the former tends to waste less material than the latter.


An experienced partner can help deliver

Of course, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t any waste in additive manufacturing. Although highly sustainable from a materials point of view, there are two sources of waste which need the attention of product designers, engineers, and machine operators alike.

The first source of waste are the support structures that are printed to make parts technically feasible and account for challenges posed by the process, machine, or material. These must be removed during the post-processing phase. Fortunately, this waste can be minimized if the part is designed well. In most cases, where supports are needed, wastage can be reduced to as low as 2 percent.

The second source of waste is the bucket of failed prints that pile up in the initial phases of designing parts or transitioning parts from an older technology or process to additive manufacturing. It’s here that working with an experienced partner such as Advantage Engineering can really pay big dividends. Failed prints are not just a material wastage issue, they’re also a cost issue and if teams are not careful, can add up to a nifty sum.

When speaking about sustainability, engineers have often highlighted the fact that injection molding is also a sustainable process as there’s nearly no material wasted. Whatever little is waste can be ground up and reused.

However, injection molding is an additive process, at least theoretically – which puts it at par with its cutting-edge industrial 3D printing processes such as stereolithography (SLA) and multi-jet fusion (MJF).


Material innovation drives sustainability in injection molding and additive manufacturing

Aside from the fact that there’s minimal material wastage when using injection molding, the process itself is among a few in the manufacturing space that is beginning to use biodegradable materials instead of traditional plastics such as nylon and acrylic. Examples of such materials include Thermoplastic Starch-based Plastics (TPS), Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), Polylactic Acid (PLA), Polybutylene Succinate (PBS), and Polycaprolactone (PCL).

All of this represents innovation in material sciences in the manufacturing space and its impact is very real.

Injection molded plastic parts makes up a significant percentage of the products we see around us, from electrical housings and shampoo bottles to medical devices and consumer goods. Companies that are concerned about doing their part to save the environment need to give this some thought. Yes, it takes a bit of effort – but it can be done and given the billions of parts made each year using this process, might be well worth the efforts.

Back in the world of cutting-edge additive manufacturing, using innovative materials as printing filaments is easier. In fact, researchers have two key goals. The first is to create new materials that have a range of physical properties and lend themselves to a multitude of use cases while retaining its biodegradability; the second is to find ways to recycle materials already present around us and turn them into filaments that can be used for additive manufacturing.

On both fronts, there’s incredibly progress being made – with new materials not just being used for prototyping but also to create production-quality parts – sustainably.

To delve deeper into the sustainability of additive manufacturing and its various materials, reach out to our team now.