Is Large Scale 3D Printing Sustainable?
A creative technology that should be given greater attention for its sustainability is 3D printing. With a socially conscious society searching for ways to slow the impacts of climate change, it is ever more critical for businesses to find sustainable solutions to meet consumer and governmental standards. Using renewable energy sources to power operations is one solution; does 3D printing offer another?
Large-scale 3D printing is sustainable due to its efficiency of design and ability to eliminate waste. By using customized 3D printing solutions on a large scale, businesses are able to create exactly what is needed, with no unnecessary byproducts lost in the process.
Like most aspects of technological advancement, large-scale 3D printing provides many exciting possibilities for consumers, with increased sustainability in the manufacturing process chief among these. The following breakdown looks at the many unique ways that 3D printing can conserve resources by adding efficiency to design and eliminating waste products.
Large Scale 3D Printing Creates Efficiency in Design
Customization is the name of the game when it comes to 3D printing. And while some may think that customization would be more resource-intensive than mass production efforts, the opposite is actually true.
By using software to intricately design and accurately model a customized product, a precise print can be made to fulfill a specific purpose, reducing time and materials consumed in the production process.
The following factors provide a more in-depth look at how this efficiency is achieved.
Efficient Use of Resources
Large scale 3D printing uses an additive manufacturing process, in which filaments are added layer-by-layer to complete a print, based on the detailed instructions given by a computer.
These filaments, in their raw form, are typically some type of durable and lightweight plastic or metal. They are warmed and fed through an extruder on an as-need basis to create an object. The remaining filament is left in reserve for the next object.
3D printing is far more efficient than a reductive manufacturing process, such as machining, in which an object is cut from a larger piece of raw material.
Using a reductive manufacturing process, the spare material either goes unused or requires a resource-intensive process of being melted down and reshaped for future use.
Fewer Processing Steps
When choosing 3D printing, an entire object can be made using a single printer. This is much more efficient than a traditional “assembly line” method of manufacture, in which separate machines and processing steps would likely be required for forming, cutting, and finishing an object.
The use of a single 3D printer helps lower energy needs required in plants that require the use of multiple machines to create their objects.
In addition to the aforementioned efficiency created through additive manufacturing, limited processing steps is another mark of sustainability.
Small Lot Production
On top of the customization that can be achieved from object-to-object, 3D printing allows for customization in terms of lot size. In traditional manufacturing, objects must be created in large volume in order for it to be economically feasible to run the machinery.
Not only do these large lot sizes require more energy and raw materials, but it often occurs that the entirety of the production run cannot be used, creating waste.
With 3D printing, the on-demand nature of the process makes it possible to produce in lot sizes as small as a single unit.
Small lot production ensures that the objects being created are actually going to be used, with the unused raw materials and energy standing in reserve for the next customized order.
Creating an object using traditional manufacturing processes can be extremely time- and resource-intensive. Multiple steps, tools, prototypes, and revisions are likely to be required before an object comes out as desired, creating an elongated cycle time.
Using computer software and rapid prototyping techniques, 3D printing can greatly reduce the time required in a traditional production cycle.
Businesses can quickly and efficiently make revisions and alterations to a design using CAD software and print out prototypes on-demand, allowing them to make product upgrades and unveil new designs in a fraction of the time of traditional manufacturing methods.
It is simple physics to understand that heavier structures require more energy to move.
Through its use of lightweight additives, particularly in the realm of metal lightweighting, 3D printing offers some exciting possibilities in the realm of energy efficiency.
This is extremely exciting in industries such as aerospace and motorsports, where even the slightest reduction in component weight can translate into huge savings in terms of energy use.
Large Scale 3D Printing Helps Eliminate Waste
Through its use of customization to yield increased efficiency in design, 3D printing naturally helps eliminate a large amount of the waste that occurs in traditional manufacturing processes. Nonetheless, the following are some additional examples of how large-scale 3D printing helps to reduce resource waste.
Agile manufacturing refers to the modern concept of businesses creating processes, tools, and training to help them respond quickly to market demands while still controlling cost and quality.
With 3D printing, companies can ensure agile manufacturing through their ability to create spare parts and customized solutions on-demand.
With traditional manufacturing processes, companies would either have to have specialized parts delivered on short notice or have a large stockpile on hand in the event that they were ever needed. By employing 3D printing technology, these complicated supply chain logistics are avoided.
Reverse engineering is the process of reproducing an object that is already in existence. Typically, this may involve looking at a legacy product and trying to recreate it for a limited-edition run.
By using 3D printing, it is simple to scan images into the 3D software and recreate existing parts without having to invest significant resources to engineer them all over again.
Not only does 3D printing save on materials and production cost, but it also can save one of the most valuable resources – time.
Using a computerized 3D printer to manufacture products, it is possible to achieve a level of complexity not easily attained with more traditional methods.
Large-scale 3D printing allows for the creation of exotic structures, functionally-graded materials, and moving joints while eliminating the trial-and-error costs of less-sophisticated processes.
By being able to see high-definition 3D images prior to manufacturing the object, it is possible for businesses to predict the outcome of a print with great accuracy. This helps eliminate material waste associated with reattempting to create objects that did not come out as planned.
Sustainability Issues with 3D Printing
Opponents of 3D printing may argue that it is not entirely without waste. There are issues that can occur during production:
A print can fail. A clogged extruder can cause problems, or an intricate structure may lose its shape before it has a chance to harden into form.
A print may require extra support (and materials). There are instances in which support structures are needed to help hold a delicate feature of the print in place while it sets.
Both the failed print and support structures are technically considered waste products of the 3D printing process. However, it should be noted that the vast majority of 3D printing materials and filaments are recyclable, making for a relatively simple process to turn these waste products back into filaments themselves.
With society’s increasing push to reverse the effects of climate change, it is in every company’s best interest to take steps toward sustainability.
While this usually leads people to think in terms of using renewable energy sources to power business operations, one underrated means of increasing sustainability is through the use of large-scale 3D printing.
By allowing for efficiency of design through customization and eliminating the waste typical of traditional manufacturing processes, 3D printing is capable of making companies significantly more sustainable.