Toward more sustainable additive manufacturing: how and why we create a more circular economy

How Covestro and JuggerBot 3D are collaborating to disrupt 3D printing with plastics  

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As material developers and 3D printing companies continually work to bring new products to market, there is one motivating factor that is increasingly top of mind: sustainability. Plastics companies are also reckoning with the impact of their activities on the planet and working towards solving major challenges that the world is facing, such as pollution and climate change. Materials manufacturer Covestro intends to be part of the solution by shaping a more sustainable and circular future. To achieve this, the company cooperates with other companies as it doesn’t believe it can do this alone.

We’ll take a closer look at how this mission is being manifested with Covestro and printer builder JuggerBot 3D through more circular materials and manufacturing systems as well as through recycling strategies. Covestro and JuggerBot 3D will also be diving further into the topic of sustainability during an upcoming webinar, “Additive Manufacturing Trends: Printing High Strength Composites”. The online event, scheduled for May 20th, 2021 at 11am EDT is now open for registration

Think differently about waste

Invented in the early 20th century and mass-produced since the 1940s, plastics are today an inevitable part of our daily lives, from food wrappers to car parts. Despite their convenience, plastics come with specific challenges. Primarily, the ubiquitous material group is rarely biodegradable and, as uncovered through a 2017 scientific study, barely recycled—only 9% of all plastics between 1950 and 2015 have been recycled.

Covestro, a materials company that has been growing its stake in the additive manufacturing industry (most recently with the acquisition of DSM Resins & Functional Materials businesses), is taking a proactive approach to these issues. At the basis of its strategy is the formation of a circular economy. This approach consists of several parts: a change in mindset; a full understanding of a material’s lifecycle, including the ecological impact of 3D printing; and new bio-based materials and recycling technologies.

JuggerBot 3D printer
JuggerBot’s large-scale Tradesman Series P3-44

The first step to improving the sustainability of plastics production is to think differently about consumption and waste. As Covestro says, the linear economy of “take, make, waste” production and consumption is untenable in today’s world. Fortunately, there are several ways that this change of mindset can be practiced in the context of AM and more broadly: by making longer-lasting products, by minimizing waste during production and recycling whenever possible.

On top of that, Covestro also has the goal to “maximize the use of limited resources and manufacture plastics in a truly sustainable, climate-neutral way; using alternative raw materials and renewable energy.” This has involved bringing to market partially bio-based polymers for 3D printing as well as developing new recycling processes for used materials.

Covestro notes that these efforts cannot be done alone and strives to play a part in enabling the collaboration between many companies and organizations that will drive global sustainability forward.

The importance of Life Cycle Assessment

A key step in the transition to a circular economy for plastic additive manufacturing is the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). LCAs measure and analyze the environmental impact of a certain product throughout its entire lifecycle—from production, to distribution, to use and beyond. Looking at AM specifically, an LCA begins with raw material extraction and covers every subsequent step until final disposal or recycling. These assessments are crucial to understanding the effects of a company’s AM materials and to laying the groundwork for sustainability strategies.

Covestro circular economy
Nesting fixture 3D printed from EcoPaXX AM4001 GF (G)

Working in collaboration with JuggerBot 3D, for instance, the Additive Manufacturing business that Covestro recently acquired from DSM conducted an LCA for EcoPaXX® AM4001 GF (G), a glass fiber reinforced, 42% biobased PA410 polymer for fused granulate fabrication (FGF) 3D printing. The material, partially derived from castor plants (which do not compete with the food chain in terms of land use), is characterized by its high modulus and tensile strength, as well as excellent thermal and hydrolysis resistance. The pellet material is also engineered for easy processing and has good chemical resistance and heat deflection (up to 230⁰C). Applications for the material include structural, lightweight automotive components, jigs and fixtures, products for the healthcare industry and more.

As part of the material’s LCA, Covestro not only looked at EcoPaXX® AM4001 GF (G), but also at JuggerBot’s 3D printing technology, which was used to process the material. To understand the energy consumption generated by the printing process, JuggerBot 3D installed a power meter on its Tradesman Series™ P3-44, a large-format pellet-based 3D printer. The LCA ultimately revealed that EcoPaXX AM4001 GF (G) had a ~35% carbon footprint reduction compared to unfilled PA6.*

Reducing waste, the additive way

The knowledge derived from Life Cycle Assessments is incredibly valuable to product developers and manufacturers that are seeking to minimize their ecological impact. But there are also other steps that companies can take to reduce their carbon footprint. This is exemplified when looking at T A Systems, an American producer of automated assembly lines and production equipment for the automotive sector that successfully managed to reduce lead times and material waste by up to 50% with Covestro (formerly DSM) Additive Manufacturing and JuggerBot 3D.

T A Systems’ main goal was to improve the production of critical assembly line parts while reducing the material waste created by subtractive manufacturing by switching to AM. At the same time, the company was interested in challenging the idea that AM materials are fragile and less robust than their subtractive counterparts.

Covestro JuggerBot 3D sustainability

In its collaboration with Covestro (formerly DSM) Additive Manufacturing and JuggerBot 3D, the company revamped production of part nests, which function to hold part assemblies, like instrument panels, as they move along the assembly line. Nests were typically produced using CNC machining and were made from polymer materials like UHMW (ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene) or aluminum. The combination of material and subtractive approach, however, led to inefficiency, both in terms of material and cost.

With the proliferation of functional, industrial-grade materials for additive manufacturing, T A Systems saw an opportunity to streamline and improve its production workflow. Ultimately, the company implemented JuggerBot 3D’s Tradesman Series P3-44 and the EcoPaXX® material and experienced a drastic reduction in waste (up to 50%) as well as reduced lead times.

This was largely due to 3D printing’s additive nature, which builds objects layer-by-layer rather than by cutting away at a block of raw material.

It’s time to recycle

Another vital ingredient in the recipe for more sustainability is recycling. Covestro is tackling this area by developing recycling technologies that will give new life to used plastics and fulfill its aim of a more circular economy. In particular, the company is focused on advancing chemical recycling, an emerging technology that breaks down plastic waste to create secondary raw materials which can be used to produce new plastics.

Notably, Covestro is a part of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, a non-profit founded in 2019 aimed at “developing, deploying and bringing to scale solutions to reduce, reuse and recover plastic waste.” Dr. Markus Steilemann, CEO of Covestro, said of the initiative: “At Covestro we are convinced plastics are far too valuable to end up in the environment. All waste should be regarded as a resource. We believe this alliance is a significant step to drive innovation, develop strategic partnerships and mature waste-to-value concepts into economically viable sustainable solutions.”

Ultimately, recycling, bio-derived materials, waste minimization and a deep understanding of the environmental impact of plastics will help to create a circular economy that, in turn, will pave the way for a sustainable future for the plastics industry. 3D printing, which directly influences material waste, has great potential to contribute in this pressing mission.

Don’t forget to tune in to Covestro and JuggerBot 3D’s upcoming webinar on May 20th, which will look at the state of high strength composites in AM and address the important topic of sustainability.

*The data used for LCA calculations were retrieved from the team’s own databases and external sources such as suppliers’ data or publicly available databases. The footprint may be different depending on certain developments,. This declaration has been prepared on the basis of the information available at the assessment date (March 2021) and to the best of knowledge and expertise currently available.

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Tess Boissonneault

Tess Boissonneault is a Montreal-based content writer and editor with five years of experience covering the additive manufacturing world. She has a particular interest in amplifying the voices of women working within the industry and is an avid follower of the ever-evolving AM sector. Tess holds a master's degree in Media Studies from the University of Amsterdam.

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