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Sustainability in 3D

​As the Additive Manufacturing industry transitions from prototype focused processes, to mass production, AM companies need to consider the environmental impact of the materials they use, and how sustainable each material is. With the world already producing over 320 million tons (in 2016), it is important now more than ever, to be making conscious decisions when using/over-using plastics. There is a large portion of the Additive sector that uses polymer filaments in their processes such as Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM), Stereolithography (SLA) and Digital Light Processing (DLP). With evidential growth in 3D printing, the question is, what these companies are doing to improve environmental sustainability. 

To unveil some educated answers, we spoke to Alan Dempsey, Project Manager for Manchester Metropolitan University’s, Print City. With ten years’ experience and proven knowledge on both environmental sustainability and Additive Manufacturing, we questioned him on what the AM industry is doing to react to the current environmental crisis. He provided some insightful answers to our questions, here is what Alan had to say…​

  1. What material is the most environmentally sustainable in additive manufacturing?

The list of materials coming into the market in additive manufacturing is growing daily. Materials scientists and Chemists are really pushing the boundaries and disrupting the industry. In Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) printing, Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) and Polylactic Acid (PLA) are the most common filaments. Here at PrintCity, PLA is our filament of choice. PLA is a plant-based polymer and in the right conditions, typically industrial can be composted. However, bioplastics do compete for water and land with food crops. Here at PrintCity, we have been conducting research on recycling a variety of waste plastic into 3D printing filament and testing it on some of our 40 3D printers including manufacturing and post-consumer waste. We intend to continue this research and are actively seeking academic and industry partners to join us in bidding for research funding.

  1. Are there any companies you have noticed that are practicing E.S.?

Many companies are practicing environmental sustainability. Research has shown that consumers are willing to pay more for more environmentally sustainable products and services. However, the research indicates that as the premium increases, the willingness to pay more reduces. Blue Planet 2 aired on the BBC in October 2017. The programme has sparked the debate about plastic pollution and the global impact it is having. The programme has motivated consumers to do more and governments to update policy, with a view to reshaping our reliance on fossil fuel-based polymers. There are a number of companies working in this space, the Elen Macarthur Foundation is a real driving force on plastics and the Circular Economy. There are companies that are selling filament from recycled material for FDM printing. One company doing this is Filamentive, which uses manufacturing waste material and recycles them into high-quality filament. The filaments (ABS, PLA, and PETG) come on cardboard spools, which are much easier to recycle than the traditional plastic spools. In construction, ARUP and CLS Architects have unveiled a 3D printed house that reduces construction waste, increases efficiencies during the building process, and allows materials to be reused at the end of the building life.

  1. What are the main challenges in AM companies achieving E.S.?

The main challenges for additive manufacturing companies to achieve Environmental Sustainability are in the areas of material use, energy consumption, and waste. Additive manufacturing companies that design new products also have a responsibility to apply life cycle thinking in the product design phase, to reduce the products’ impacts during the use phase and by designing for disassembly at the end of the products life, enabling the materials to be put back into the system and closing the loop. Tools such as Generative Design can reduce the product’s environmental impact and increase the environmental sustainability of companies working in additive manufacturing. 

  1. What advice would you give to companies trying to achieve environmental sustainability?

There are a number of ways to achieve environmental sustainability. Companies should look at their environmental aspects and impacts and focus on the areas that will have the environmental benefit. Energy consumption, procurement, and waste are often targeted by organisations to reduce the impact but every organisation is different. Manchester Metropolitan University is currently ranked number one in the UK University Green League table, published by People & Planet. Manchester Metropolitan was the first university in the UK to achieve the new and more challenging  ISO 14001:2015 standard. In additive manufacturing, there are a number of ways to improve environmental sustainability. Designers can think about the life cycle impact of products they produce. We encourage our students to apply life cycle thinking to their work. As each product is different, gains can be made in materials selection, manufacturing, use, and at the end of life phases. We encourage students to think holistically about what they make and how they can do it more sustainably. Design and manufacturing freedom offered by 3D printing is revolutionising product design, from prototyping to finished products, allowing products to be produced with fewer materials. Autodesk’s Generative Design software, available in Fusion 360, is a really exciting tool that can quickly generate thousands of design alternatives from a single idea. The software mimics nature’s evolutionary approach to design. Designers or engineers input their design goals along with other parameters such as cost constraints, materials, and manufacturing methods, and the software will use cloud computing to explore and generate multiple design variations. General Motors have teamed up with Autodesk to used Generative Design on one of its vehicle components, the seat belt bracket. Using Generative Design and additive manufacturing, the company was able to reduce eight components to one, that was 40% lighter and 20% stronger! It is estimated that there are 30,000 parts in a standard car. Generative Design software was used to redesign more car parts, significant weight savings could be achieved, reducing fuel consumption and emissions. Going further, if the technology was applied to the design of electric vehicles (EV) it could lead a much greater range per charge, often seen as one of the main barriers for people switching to EV’s. 


After meeting with Alan and the Master’s students at Print City we learned more ways of 3D printing in an environmentally friendly way. They mentioned Dutch designers, Eric Klarenbeek and Maartje Dros, who have developed a bioplastic made from algae, and they believe this could be a great alternative to synthetic plastics. They have said that algae polymer could be used to make everything such as tableware, rubbish bins, and shampoo bottles. Overall some great, detailed answers from Alan which could definitely resonate with some Additive Manufacturing companies, as we move forward in improving the wellbeing of the environment. Special thanks to Alan and the MSc Industrial Digitalisation students at MMU.

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