Scholars Call for 3D Printing to Be Made Sustainable from the Ground up

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At a time when climate change and resource scarcity loom large, the imperative for industries to adapt is more pressing than ever. We all know that additive manufacturing (AM) is poised to be a sustainable production technology. However, a new article published in Nature Sustainability presupposes that, in order for it to realize this vision, 3D printing must be approached from a systems-level perspective and sustainability must be incorporated into the sector from the outset.

In the article, “A vision for sustainable additive manufacturing,” scholars hailing from key universities in Italy, the Netherlands, Singapore, Switzerland, Sweden, and the U.S. (Politecnico di Milano, Delft University of Technology, ETH Zurich, Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, Pennsylvania State University, Chalmers University of Technology, and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research) lay out a twofold argument: Firstly, that AM can create more sustainable manufacturing systems when guided by established sustainable design methods, and secondly, that it can dovetail with conventional manufacturing to bolster sustainable design practices across the board.

How Green is AM?

The article begins by examining the current green credentials that are often boasted on behalf of 3D printing: in particular, that AM is sustainable because it reduces material waste from production and emissions associated with transporting goods by manufacturing closer to the point of use. The authors challenge these claims by pointing out that many conventional production techniques are materially efficient, with the exception of machining where 3D printing does win out, and that AM is generally much more energy intensive than traditional processes. As for transportation, the article points out that “transport accounts for a small portion of the lifetime impacts of most typical products.”

So, while AM may be able to improve the energy efficiency of something like an aircraft engine, more data needs to be gathered related to the total lifecycle analysis (LCA) of various 3D printing processes. The authors, therefore, believe that, before 3D printing can be deemed a sustainable technology, the proper LCAs should be performed. They highlight that excluding material production and end-of-life impacts from LCAs could miss chances to explore more sustainable AM materials and necessitate design compromises for better environmental outcomes.

They then take the idea further, pointing out ways that 3D printing can be designed to be more environmentally friendly from the ground up. Sustainable design principles can be incorporated into AM, including considering the full system’s impact, using sustainable materials, and optimizing designs to minimize waste. It suggests that sustainability should be a key requirement in developing new AM processes and materials, such as designing metal alloys for easier recycling or materials with improved mechanical properties to avoid the need for high-performance, less sustainable options.

The discussion extends to the need for sustainable design tools and methodologies, the potential social impacts of AM, including labor implications and inequality, and the role of AM in democratizing manufacturing while promoting a culture of sustainability. The passage concludes by touching on health and safety concerns related to material toxicity, underscoring the need for comprehensive studies to compare AM with conventional manufacturing methods and explore new materials that are safer for both workers and the environment.

How Can AM Make the World Greener?

With that in mind, the authors elaborate on AM’s synergy with sustainable design practices, discussing the ways that these practices can benefit 3D printing more broadly. This includes design for product repair and maintenance, in which products could be designed to be easy to disassemble and reassemble, enabling on-demand fabrication of replacement parts by AM. The same is true for upgradability and remanufacturing, which would extend product lifetimes by facilitating easy upgrades or enhancements via 3D printing. Also, by designing goods for recycling, it would be possible for AM to reuse material waste extracted from products and the end of their lives.

Image courtesy of Nature Sustainability.

The article ends by painting a visionary future scenario for sustainable 3D printing through the lens of systems thinking. This approach facilitates a holistic view of product life cycles, emphasizing the importance of closed loops in AM to support sustainable development and circular economy practices.

The authors discuss AM’s role in scaling up production volumes across industries, as well as its use in producing final parts and products, including spare parts for repair and upgrades, to extend product lifetimes. The paper also argues for the exploitation of new AM technologies and materials with improved impacts and life cycles, and the implementation of sustainable design methods in AM, enabling informed choices regarding raw materials, resource consumption during service, and socio-technical effects.

Central to this vision are strategies focusing on sustainable raw material selection, including bio-based and recycled materials, and part and printer design that minimizes environmental impacts across the entire product lifecycle—from raw material acquisition through manufacturing, use, and end-of-life phases. The scenario also considers the integration of AM with conventional manufacturing processes to optimize sustainability outcomes, emphasizing the need for smart machine design to reduce energy consumption and production waste.

Post-manufacturing, the scenario describes a product lifecycle beginning with assembly and extending through use, repair, and potentially upgrade or remanufacturing, supported by AM. The end-of-life phase envisions recycling, composting, or remanufacturing, assuming products are designed without hazardous materials. Policymakers play a crucial role in this scenario, tasked with providing guidance and tools to support sustainability at all phases, highlighting the need for more research on policy design related to sustainable AM.

The article concludes with a call to action, wherein the authors note: “Additive manufacturing is not inherently circular or sustainable, but this scenario shows how AM can support sustainable development and [circular economies]. Exploring these possibilities is now required, with AM’s weight in the global manufacturing scenario becoming relevant soon. Additive manufacturing has not yet finished scaling, and technologies are still evolving. Hence, there is still time for action before they become entrenched. Simultaneously, consumption cycles and how we conceptualize product life must be transformed. Each product has a history that must be valued. Each material can create value for a product. From waste, we can create value. Refurbished components can contribute to increasing the added value of new products, and innovations in AM and DfAM can thus contribute to developing this value. A vision for sustainable AM will happen only if all the actors and stakeholders involved in the product value chain have a synergy of intents and commitment towards sustainability targets.”

In this way, the paper is just a start. Right now, there are myriad government opportunities targeting exactly the areas that the authors highlight, but 3D printing can only play a role in decreasing human impact on the environment by AM itself becoming more sustainable in design and practice.

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