3D printing: A greener, more sustainable manufacturing?

By Dr Juan Schutte, R&D engineer at UoA’s Creative Design and Additive Manufacturing Lab

Climate change, the global emissions crisis, Paris Accord and New Zealand’s 2050 Zero Carbon Act are major players in the promotion of cleaner greener research and development. This is particularly relevant in work highlighting 3D printing as a more environmentally friendly manufacturing tool/technology. A primary argument being that unlike subtractive machining which typically generates large quantities of waste product, 3D printing’s additive nature allows for the creation of parts while creating no/minimal wasted material.

This statement is somewhat limited to the ‘right tool for the right job’ debate as the efficiency of manufacturing methods are highly dependent on the initial design for manufacturing considerations. Take for example the manufacturing of a solid 100x100x100mm aluminum cube. Printing this part using an EOS M290 would take ~70 hours of processing, and include the high energy required in running its 400W laser and peripheral electromechanical systems. The equivalent being the minutes if not seconds of alternative methods to cut this from larger stock material… It’s clear that in the debate of sustainability, 3D printing is highly unlikely to make traditional tools completely redundant.

Beyond simple forms however, 3D printing provides a unique method in effectively producing complex geometries, which are lightweight and highly efficient. In such cases the resulting part can aid in the lowering of carbon footprints/energy requirements of industrial machinery, transportation and consumer products. The nature of such products and the complex capabilities that 3D printable materials can provide is a major focus of speculative industrial design and science stretching biomaterials research within New Zealand. While impressive progress has been achieved, this competes with an “industrial-revolutions” worth of development focussed on optimising the efficiencies and capabilities of petrochemical equivalents. Something needs to shift the scales to deter from the status quo, and perhaps the social good and impending climate Armageddon is not motivation enough?

While consumers can play a part in re-using and recycling, a fundamental shift in the manufacturing paradigm can only occur through active participation by manufacturers. A difficult (sometimes impossible) change to make in a competitive industry which predominantly incentivizes cheaper and faster solutions. New Zealand currently holds a non-mandatory position on manufacturer product stewardship (the extension of producer responsibility to include the end-of-life of products). While an option to enforce such thinking through legislature and policies seems critical to achieving 2050’s goals, the detrimental effects on national productivity and international relations prove to be highly complex environments to navigate on our journey to a cleaner greener tomorrow.

Dr. Juan Schutte works at the University of Auckland’s Creative Design and Additive Manufacturing Lab as an R&D Engineer consulting with industry and academia on the opportunities of 3D printing.

The information and opinions within this column are not necessarily the views or opinions of Xpress Engineer NZ, NZ Engineering News or the parent company, Hayley Media.