Dansk AM Hub Looks at Sustainable 3D Printing

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It is no secret that we’re fans of Dansk AM Hub, the Danish national 3D printing body. The organization has a rather cost-effective way of marshaling the resources of a small but wealthy country to speed up its understanding of additive manufacturing (AM) and allow it to punch above its weight in the 3D printing world. Now the group has released a handy guide dedicated to understanding how 3D printing can be implemented for ecological reasons, Sustainable Manufacturing of the Future: The Role of Additive Manufacturing.

Rarely have I seen as much disinformation being spread so widely and blithely than in “sustainable” 3D printing applications. A lot of users seem neither to care nor know what they are talking about, believing that some use cases or technologies are green without having access to the data. At the same time, they almost intrinsically believe that additive is better for the environment without understanding why or how. Most everyone seems to believe that PLA is green, without knowing that its production requires over seven liters of water per kilo of material, it usually isn’t compostable and may not degrade for decades or more, and it is difficult to recycle. We desperately need new information on the sustainability of 3D printing.

So, this publication from Dansk AM Hub is most welcome. As befits a publication made in a Northern European country, it discusses concepts like climate change and the energy transition. It tells us that increased energy efficiency will solve about half of the equation climate change issue, saying, ¨Meeting climate targets will also require tackling the remaining 45% of emissions associated with making products and embedded in the four key industrial materials; cement, steel, plastic, and aluminium.¨ The recipe for partially accomplishing this is to:

  1. go digital, as in local manufacturing on demand
  2. mind the materials, as in consider efficient materials, such as those with a low carbon content or that are recyclable
  3. rethink design, e.g. weight reduction and part consolidation
  4. own your own value chain, or perform a life cycle analysis of your value chain

The report is replete with examples. Eyewear company Monoqool, for example, transitioned to making eyeglass frames on demand with 3D printing. This speeds up their go-to-market and makes the company more flexible. Working with the service Prototal Damvig is more expensive than conventional manufacturing, but reductions in stock and a reduction of material waste from 85% to 2% is something for the firm to be happy with.

Another firm, Tons, produces fitness gear through on-demand manufacturing of compostable 3D printing materials. The company wants to move its manufacturing sites close to future customers. Nordic Metals converts scrap materials into feedstock for powder bed fusion, with a CO2 footprint claimed to be 61% lower than conventional powders. The company also repairs tools as a service and touts an improved lifespan of 30 to 50 percent as an advantage. This is probably why Swedish engineering giant Sandvik is so happy with 3D printing, as well. I like this example a lot since sustainability is often looked in terms of embodied energy, virgin materials and more. Rarely do we look at sustainability in terms of making things last longer.

The paper also goes on to look at Dutch firm Signify which prints lamps using polycarbonate and claims a 47% lower CO2 footprint than conventionally manufactured lamps. Furthermore, a 35% CO2 reduction comes from more efficient shipping due to lower weight.

Overall, the paper is a great intro to sustainability, showcasing a rough framework with which explore sustainability. It also contains a number of clear examples demonstrating the advantages of being sustainable.

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