Additive manufacturing is inherently a means of production that could improve the sustainability of industries around the world. The very idea of producing by adding only the material needed, instead of removing material in excess, without the need of producing tools, could be a game-changer for the global environment. If fewer materials are needed, less are wasted. Producing parts when they are needed, and where they are needed can go a long way in reducing overall emissions from industrial production.
The match between AM and sustainability also goes beyond industrial production: the use of 3D printing in construction is emerging as a much more environment-friendly approach, both in terms of workflows and materials used. This has obvious repercussions in the housing industry but also in renewable energy production.
However, the road to making AM a truly sustainable means of production is a long one. Currently, many metals AM processes are high-energy-intensive, many polymers AM processes still waste a lot of – often toxic – materials and construction 3D printing processes are still in their infancy. But new, more sustainable materials are already appearing on the market and the development of these materials is a key effort for many companies involved in AM.
Energy requirements are a different matter. There, much like with EVs, it very much depends upon how the electricity needed to power 3D printers is produced. One evident example is Seurat. The company’s plan is to mass-produce using its high-throughput metal PBF process which requires massive quantities of energy. The company’s goal is to produce that energy in a 100% sustainable way. And that’s the bottom line: if the electricity needed to run energy-intensive (mostly) metal 3D printers comes from renewable or clean sources, the impact of AM on emissions can be dramatically reduced. If, on the other hand, it comes from fossil fuels such as carbon, oil and gas, it is a different matter.
To be very clear, 3dpbm’s view is that a true energy mix is required and that there are immediate ways to make carbon, oil and gas energy generation activities much cleaner than they are today, as global dependence on them is gradually reduced. At the same time, renewable energy sources are not a universal solution, as they are still dependent on polluting elements such as battery manufacturing and rare earths extraction. In fact, next-generation nuclear fission reactors may be the cleanest source of energy that the world has access to while awaiting nuclear fusion. And AM is often playing a key role in accelerating their development by enabling the ability to produce complex, unique parts using the extreme materials needed to handle such power.
Finally, as the global economy continues to undergo dramatic contractions, supply chains are interrupted or broken, and raw materials become less accessible, a new opportunity is emerging to further develop AM into a way to produce in a more efficient way: digital, on-demand, additive and distributed manufacturing is now a serious and credible option. It may be the only option to tackle – in one shot – all the social, economic, health and environmental challenges that lie ahead.