How Green is Additive Manufacturing?

by Clare Scott

Earth Day is right around the corner, and it’s a good reminder to consider how “green” we are in our work and personal lives. If you work in the additive manufacturing industry, you likely know that the technology is often hailed as being more eco-friendly than others. This is not necessarily true – however, AM has the potential to be a sustainable industry if approached in the right ways.

One large environmental issue related to AM is the production of the metal powders used in the technology. Plasma atomization and gas atomization, the most common processes used to produce metal powders, use a great deal of energy. They also create significant waste, as only a fraction of the powder produced is usable.

However, some companies are beginning to take note of this and to develop new methods of powder production. These can use scrap metal as feedstock and yield far more usable powder, thanks to more controlled environments. These methods are also being designed to consume less energy.

When it comes to the actual printing process, AM can produce parts without the excess material created by some other manufacturing technologies. Waste still occurs, though, in the form of support material and failed prints. If this waste can be recycled into new feedstock, it can help make both powder production and printing itself greener processes.

The realm of polymer AM offers many examples of companies who have taken on the challenge of waste reduction. An increasing number of filament brands for material extrusion 3D printing are using recycled materials for their filaments. This material can be sourced from failed prints as well as plastic bottles, fishing nets, and other waste.

Prusament recycled PLA, courtesy of Prusa

Where AM really stands out in terms of sustainability, however, is in the use of the parts it produces. AM can create parts that are far lighter in weight than their conventionally manufactured counterparts. This leads to results like better fuel efficiency, particularly in the aerospace industry. In addition, AM can produce parts locally and on demand, reducing the need for carbon-emitting transport.

More time and effort need to be spent assessing the environmental impact of AM from start to finish – from material production to part use and disposal. The technology has the potential to be much greener than it currently is, but steps are being taken in the right direction. More sustainable methods of powder production can go a long way toward reducing AM’s carbon footprint and waste generation. Designing products to last is another way to reduce waste – far too many products are quickly disposed of and replaced. Finally, recyclability should be considered for when a product does reach the end of its useful life. With conscientious effort, AM has the potential to be a leader in sustainability.

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