What gaps need to be addressed to make additive manufacturing truly sustainable?
Additive manufacturing (AM) is often touted as the more sustainable alternative to traditional manufacturing methods. After all, conventional wisdom dictates that since AM requires less material, it has to be more cost-effective and environmentally sound. While there is merit to such claims, there are still several drawbacks and inefficiencies within AM. For instance, while metallic powder does lend itself to more sustainable manufacturing, polymer powders are less recyclable. Additionally, AM techniques like laser sintering produce significant non-reusable waste.
Engineering.com sat down with Nexa3D co-founder and CEO, Avi Reichental, to learn about what companies should consider when addressing sustainability challenges within AM. According to Reichental, Nexa3D’s focus is to drive the adoption of additive technologies through speed and productivity while waiving the total cost of ownership—and to achieve all this in the most sustainable way possible.
“We are working really hard to apply circular economy and design principles in everything that we do, so that we can bring to the world not only a more productive industrial solution, but a more productive industrial solution that’s sustainable,” says Reichental.
Engineering.com: There’s talk of 3D printing technology being greenwashed. What do you believe are some sustainability issues with 3D printing, and what does Nexa3D do about them?
Avi Reichental: We all inherently think that 3D printing is more sustainable, because it’s easier to lightweight with it and we think that maybe it takes less input energy. We reason that because you can have distributed manufacturing, you can maybe cut down the carbon footprint of transportation, factories, last-mile deliveries and all the good stuff. But we have yet to prove it with data. And so, the risk is that because all of us are passionate practitioners and we believe that we have the next great thing in terms of sustainability, we’re already talking about it as if it’s a done deal. That’s the greenwashing danger sign.
In reality, we have a lot of work to do to come up with, first and foremost, a coherent and transparent carbon footprint calculator that allows designers and engineers to know from the get-go: if I use this material and this process, here is the long-lasting impact, here’s the entire carbon footprint that I’m going to create with that part. Engineers and designers are making design decisions that can stay with us for decades, depending on how successful their product is. And today, they don’t have any instant feedback for them to understand the cause and effect of design decisions, material selection, manufacturing process, et cetera.
That’s one area that we at Nexa3D are doubling down on, in terms of developing that. I don’t think we can do it all by ourselves; we will need industry participation, and we will need to create some kind of data commons to be able to make it believable. We’ll have to create some transparency and accountability in all of this, so that nobody tries to take shortcuts in the process. I want to do it as an open source, so that we can democratize access to all of it. In fact, I pledged on behalf of Nexa3D that any technology discovery we make in the whole workflow that’s related to sustainability, we will open for everybody to use, because we’re not going to make enough impact if we hoard it and do it by ourselves.
Specifically to Nexa3D, we’re doing a lot of other things. We’re putting a lot of efforts into post-processing, which for many years was kind of the dirty little secret of the industry—nobody wanted to talk about it. The reality is, it creates a lot of waste that can be minimized and dealt with in a more safe and clean way. We also realized that technology is not going to solve some things, like carbon capture. The good news is that nature patented a much better way to do it a few million years ago: it’s called trees. We’ve planted over 1000 trees in Tanzania; we’re creating the Nexa3D Forest. Because trees can make a difference today, while we’re trying to make a difference for tomorrow.
Would you say the next steps are for major 3D printing companies to do this together with the Additive Manufacturer Green Trade Association (AMGTA)?
The AMGTA is definitely a great trade association that can be a convening platform. Within that framework and through other collaborations, I think we can do a bunch of things. We can create the data commons that gives access to relevant data. We can benchmark the lifecycle of each process, in a way that’s transparent and trusted. We can also share and exchange know-how and technology, because this is one area where there’s a real crisis that’s not going to solve itself. Legacy technology has created it and technology can be at the heart of a future solution. There isn’t a single company in the world that can solve this all by themselves—but together, everyone can achieve a lot more, faster. That’s what I’m hoping we can do, within the AMGTA and beyond the AMGTA.
Could you compare popular 3D printing technologies and materials in terms of environmental impact? With factors like energy consumption, emissions, waste, material recyclability. Would you say that one technology is more sustainable than others?
That’s really at the heart of this carbon calculator that we’re building and we need help to build—because anything I say today is going to be based on gut feel, intuition, or some of my own probably highly subjective views. I have a fairly good understanding of all these technologies and I can give opinions, but it’ll be irresponsible because I don’t have the data. I think that the data and the calculator could be the instrument or tool that everybody should have. In some cases, we may even discover that traditional technologies are more sustainable if you only change one or two things.
This is not about additive displacing all other technologies. Where additive has a huge role to play is in creating sustainable supply chains. I think that within additive, there are technologies that have a better sustainability profile and technologies that probably have not so much. Even within those, it’s not just about the printer or the printer technology—it’s about the complete process and the entire carbon footprint impact throughout the lifecycle. When we develop this calculator by technology, geometry and material, we can allow everybody to have real-time feedback on what to design with. Anything else I think is opportunistic and not data-based.
There could be problems with materials, like 3D printing materials made from petroleum-based sources, or the unsuitability of the more environmentally-friendly materials for high-stress applications. Then there are key considerations for recycling or reusing 3D printing materials, such as quality of filament necessary for successful 3D printing, degradation of material performance, materials recyclability, and the lack of proper recycling categorization systems. Did you want to expand on any of these problems?
I would say all of the above, and then begin to ask yourself: how many different technologies did you consider? If you talk about filament, it’s only FDM and FFF. What about powder-based systems using plastic and metal? What about photoplastics and photopolymers—how many of them are really recyclable today? How many of them don’t even have a path for end-of-life recyclability? What do you do about that? Can we find other upcycling or downcycling [techniques]? How do you begin to look at substitute materials that could have the mechanical and structural integrity to replace [traditional materials]? Where do you have opportunities to combine maybe traditional processes with new tooling?
On the surface, it’s much more tempting and easy to just talk about the print technology—but when you look at a full lifecycle analysis, it’s a little bit more complicated.