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Greenwashing: 3D Printing’s New “Dirty Little Secret”

Inkbit

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A few years ago, as we moved along the Hype Cycle after having dipped into the Trough of Disillusionment, things were looking up again for 3D printing. This time there was a difference: it was realistic; it felt realizable. Comparisons to the Star Trek replicator were lessening, while more fuel nozzles and fewer Yoda heads featured at tech conferences. As the hype quieted, as we left the honeymoon period, industrial 3D printing pushed forward and adoption was on the rise.

More engineers and fewer influencers were behind the advances. Still, to encourage adoption, 3D printing companies tended to focus on their standout claims to fame, often precipitated on speed. High-speed 3D printing is an exciting thing; indeed, the Disillusionment period was plentifully peppered with the impatient sighs of those awaiting print jobs to finish. A fan-favorite phrase emerged on AM-focused stages around the world, though: “the dirty little secret of 3D printing.”

What they meant was, of course, post-processing. What speaker after speaker referenced was the focus on the speed of 3D printing – which is but one part of the end-to-end additive manufacturing process. Post-processing isn’t sexy. It’s manual. It’s messy. It’s time-consuming. It’s often based more on hammers and brute force than the sleek operations that Industry 4.0 would like to acknowledge.

Jumping ahead another few years, though, more companies are not only upfront but pretty transparent about their entire workflow – including pre- and post-processing. It is now a truth universally acknowledged that a single 3D printer in possession of good process must be in want of a workflow, to repurpose Austen’s opening line.

But there always has to be some hangup, some behind-the-scenes factor that Big Industry doesn’t want you to know. And that’s where today’s “dirty little secret” is in 3D printing:

Additive manufacturing simply isn’t as sustainable as it seems.

Greenwashing

3D printing claims are beautiful. This technology uses only the material needed for a build*, can use recycled materials**, hyperlocalizes production***, and reduces manufacturing’s carbon footprint****.

That’s a lot of footnotes; consider adding them:

*Also supports, rafts, failed prints, and the multiple iterations common in rapid prototyping situations

**Some processes can use some recycled materials

***Parts, like electronics, are still largely sourced from overseas for the 3D printers themselves; local production requires local expertise, which isn’t available in enough areas to make a realizable impact; not to mention risk-averse adherence to traditional supply chains

****Not including the energy to make AM-specific materials, operate AM equipment including 3D printers and all post-processing systems, run a full-scale production facility, etc.

It’s only in the last few years that some organizations have begun to commission full lifecycle assessments putting numbers to claims. It’s only recently that an industry-wide organization, the Additive Manufacturer Green Trade Association (AMGTA), emerged to encourage collaboration as well as to “sponsor and conduct research and publish the results,” per the organization’s website.

AMGTA members as of February 22, 2022. Image courtesy of AMGTA.

Now, then, is the time to get away from this “secret” and face up to facts: greenwashing and other “feel-good” ploys don’t actually do anything to reduce carbon footprint or realize the vision of a circular economy.

The Time is Now

“The manufacturing industry must accept its heavy responsibility for emissions of greenhouse gases. In the US, manufacturing accounts for almost a quarter (23%) of direct carbon emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In Europe the situation is equally dire: the industry emits an annual total of 880 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents making it one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases on the continent,” notes The World Economic Forum.

The world faces much more imminent danger than capitalistic competition. There’s a Doomsday Clock ticking toward a disastrous midnight, a Doomsday Glacier that could sink cities, and the dawning realization that current logistics setups are inherently fragile. Adding into the mix ongoing global pandemic and political disruption, it has become very clear that this fragility is untenable.

The call is clear: something must be done. The timing is clear: it must be now. In so many ways, the world is at a tipping point.

It’s time for additive manufacturing to step up in sustainability.

While the call to action is apparent, the steps toward actionable sustainability are somewhat murkier. With the inherent advantages of AM capabilities as a less wasteful and more localized production process, there’s already a head start – but it’s not enough.

The timing is crucial – and in so many ways some actions will already be too late – so what can someone do?

No, that question is too small.

What can a company do?

Again: too small.

What can industry do?

Better.

Work together. The only way forward is together. Much as we’ve seen with adoption that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” a sea change has more impact than incremental, single-entity steps. 

Organizations like the AMGTA; partnerships toward realizable, actionable initiatives with measurable KPIs and tangible goals; emissions calculators; an actual understanding of what “sustainability” means; and a refresher course of what “greenwashing” shows that sustainability isn’t – these are all steps that could make a difference.

The single biggest step on a journey is the first one. For sustainability, that first step is commitment, on a foundational level, that carries throughout an organization. A company that says it’s committed to sustainability needs to do more than recycle its cardboard shipping boxes; it needs to design its systems from the ground up using recyclable materials and sustainable practices. It needs to consider the waste flow for materials – and their containers. It needs to calculate the carbon footprint of its processes, supply chain, and waste stream. It needs to partner with like-minded organizations to work toward common goals. It needs to share its metrics and the results of its lifecycle assessments to publicize data points. It needs to stand strong on a platform of fundamental values and walk the walk.

Organizations also need to not shy away from these tough conversations.

When it comes to sustainability for additive manufacturing, the time is now.

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