3D Printing Sustainability

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Our Insight video series will help you master digital manufacturing.

Every Friday we’ll post a new video – each one giving you a deeper Insight into how to design better parts. We’ll cover specific topics such as choosing the right 3D printing material, optimising your design for CNC machining, surface finishes for moulded parts, and much more besides.

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Insight: 3D Printing Sustainability


Hi and welcome to another video. This time, we’re going to be tackling a topic that seems to be cropping up in every headline – sustainability.

Sustainability in general is something that’s probably a bit too weighty a topic to take on in a five-minute video. So, instead, we’re going to be taking a look at how sustainability relates to 3D printing as a technology, how it stacks up against other manufacturing methods and what shortcomings it might have.

Right. That’s all very weighty stuff, but let’s start things off with some good news: In general, 3D printing is viewed as pretty sustainable.

There are a couple of big reasons for this. Firstly, and most obviously, the process doesn’t produce all that much in the way of waste. The fact that it’s an additive technology – one where we’re adding material as we build, rather than removing it - means that when you 3D print a part, that’s just what you get. Beyond some burrs and maybe a few support struts, nothing is wasted.

Compare this to, say, CNC machining, where the parts you’re making are being cut from a big block of material. In many builds you’re looking at about half of the original material being cut away, and if you have a particularly complex part this can easily go as high as ninety percent.

That’s a lot of waste, and even if you’re working with a material that can be recycled, the process of sorting out this waste and processing it eats up energy.

Another boost to 3D printing’s sustainability comes in the form of its ability to produce parts quickly, and on-demand.

Okay, the benefits of this one are a little less obvious, but think about how this factors into producing prototypes or low-volume parts. When you’re using a technology like injection-moulding, where you need to create expensive moulds and tooling, manufacturers often intentionally produce surpluses, just in case something goes wrong or demand is higher than expected. This is a sensible move, as once you’ve made the investment in tooling the cost of a few extra units isn’t particularly significant, but it’s not a particularly sustainable way to do things.

If you’re 3D printing parts, however, it’s easy to make exactly the amount you need, when you need them. And if you need to make a few changes to the design, that’s super-simple too – no need to throw out a pile of stockpiled parts.

Finally, we have the fact that 3D printing can allow you to create lighter, more efficient parts. There are plenty of light-weight designs that simply wouldn’t work with more traditional manufacturing methods, and not only do these help reduce the amount of material being used, they also cut down on emissions associated with shipping. Even a ten percent weight saving can add up when you’re sending pallets of parts across the globe.

All of these factors add up to help the technology become more sustainable, especially when compared to other manufacturing techniques such as CNC and injection moulding. There’s even room for things to improve as our processes become more and more efficient.

Having said all that, it’s important we don’t pat ourselves on the back too quickly. There are still some areas where 3D printing can potentially lose some sustainability points.

For one thing, note that when we were talking about waste earlier, I said that 3D printing causes “less” waste, not “no” waste. We still tend to throw away some material, in the form of post-processing waste.

This is all the stuff we print that isn’t part of the finished part, with supports being the main culprit. If you’re making a complex part, a decent amount of the material you use can end up being clipped off and tossed in the recycling.

This is something you need to keep in mind if you want to make your designs as sustainable as possible. The fewer supports, in general, the better. It’s good for the environment, and it’s good for your bottom line.

On top of this, there have also been concerns that the flexibility of 3D printing might lead to increased consumption of plastic parts. Basically, if there are more goods on the market, people are probably going to buy them, and from an environmental point of view this isn’t exactly ideal. Not sure if there’s an engineering solution to that one, unfortunately.

On that cheerful note, that’s about all the time we have today. Check back in next week, and we will have another video ready and waiting for you.




With special thanks to Natalie Constable.

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