Additive manufacturing can reduce industry’s environmental impact

engineers improve livesThe technology is still in the early stages of adoption but could soon play a significant role in reducing waste and emissions, says Ralf Carlström, general manager at Digital Metal

Industry is vital to the European economy, providing 25 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), but on the flipside, it is also responsible for more than 50 per cent of total emissions in the European Union (EU)*. Directives from the EU have helped limit emissions, but manufacturing does not need to wait for directives to take action itself on reducing its impact on the environment.

Additive manufacturing is still in the early stages of adoption across industry, so its full impact is yet to be felt, but it could play a significant role in reducing industrial emissions.

Additive manufacturing can reduce

Additive manufacturing reduces waste
With AM, manufacturers can print parts on demand. This reduces the need for tooling and reduces the amount of material required to produce components. Solid metals require forming and milling, both processes that require large amounts of energy and create material waste. As AM enables components to be printed on demand, no finished product goes unsold, so there is no over-production.

For example, Digital Metal uses fine materials, so reduces the amount of high-value material used, compared with traditional subtractive methods that form shapes from a large block. This provides large savings in energy and materials, while being able to create forms that would be difficult or impossible to create using solid metal.

In addition, this material can be recycled and used again.

Additive manufacturing reduces emissions
AM enables shorter, more localised supply chains, therefore reducing significantly the amount of freight journeys and weight required to transport industrial materials that can be printed either on-premise with the right equipment, or much nearer to the factory.

A 2014 study** estimated that by 2025, 3D printing could reduce costs globally by up to $593bn (£457bn), slash primary energy supply by between 2.54-9.30 exajoules and cut CO2 emissions by up to 525.5 megatonnes.  Manufacturers will see financial benefits by integrating additive manufacturing into their production process.

Cultural change must come from the top
The European Commission has an ambition to transform Europe’s economy into a sustainable one by 2050 and, although the UK is scheduled to leave the bloc in 2019, the country’s environmental ambitions will be closely aligned.

As AM becomes ever more prevalent in manufacturing, there are opportunities for manufacturers to redesign their processes and supply chain, reducing cost and footprint throughout the production process.

Push factors towards reducing industrial emissions include EU directives, public pressure and, of course, the inescapable fact that we only have one planet and must create sustainable working practices. The pull factors of using AM in the industrial process are attractive in themselves; the ability to create even more sustainable, cost-effective production models and to improve the health of worker by reducing long-term exposure to potentially hazardous materials.

While key drivers towards adoption of AM so far have been economic and practical, organisations should factor sustainability into their plans. Sustainability drives must be led from the very top with advocates throughout the business. Manufacturers must live and breathe sustainability, from small acts such as enabling recycling and paperless offices, right up to the way they create their products.

An example of this is Digital Metal’s parent company Höganäs, which participates in the United Nations Global Compact initiative. The programme was launched in 2000 to encourage businesses worldwide to adopt and implement sustainable and socially responsible policies. The initiative includes ‘Ten Principles’ covering human rights, labour, the environment and anti-corruption,  to achieve sustainable development.

With clear environmental and financial benefits to additive manufacturing, is it time you factored it into your processes? n

* Climate Policy Info Hub

**M Gebler, AM Schoot Uiterkamp, C Visser (2014)