Green (eggs and) AM: Additive Manufacturing for Environmental Sustainability


Nicole Hyman  

Smartphone cases being 3D printed by the Carbon M2 3D printer.

The adoption of Additive Manufacturing has transformed the way we approach manufacturing by paving the way for more efficient manufacturing processes, smaller inventory and a streamlined supply chain. Unlike traditional manufacturing, Additive Manufacturing can improve the sustainability of the production process and also has significant environmental implications particularly at the supply chain level. And yet the environmental consequences of this technology are often overlooked. Why is that?

Additive Manufacturing technology is often integrated into a chain of other processes, causing it to have an impact throughout the product life cycle. This means that when considering the environmental implications of this technology it’s important to assess more than simply the manufacturing stage. To get a full understanding of the impact, it’s important to also consider things like raw material generation, post-processing and inspection as well as distribution.

Wasting Away

Unlike many traditional manufacturing processes which cut away material, Additive Manufacturing builds up objects layer by layer. This reduces waste and material needs. In fact it’s estimated that with additive manufacturing 98% of the material is used in finished parts. Some estimates suggest that Additive Manufacturing can reduce material needs and costs by up to 90%. A good example of this is how Airbus is using Additive Manufacturing for tooling, prototyping and manufacturing parts. More than 1,000 parts of the A350 are now 3D printed. In addition to reducing material waste, such an approach helps reduce Airbus’ environmental footprint as they’re able to avoid the tools, dies and other material scraps associated with conventional manufacturing processes.

Cabin bracket for the Airbus A350 XWB made of Ti
Cabin bracket for the Airbus A350

Additive Manufacturing also makes it possible to create parts which are lighter and almost impossible to create with other manufacturing techniques. GE’s LEAP jet engine, for example, is made up of 19 3D printed fuel nozzles. These are designed and 3D printed as a single part as opposed to 20 (or more) individual parts, making the engine five time more durable than the previous model. It’s also estimated that these 3D printed nozzles help improve engine fuel efficiency by as much as 15%.

According to a study published in the Energy Policy Journal, two-thirds of Additive Manufacturing’s potential greenhouse gas saving is due to the technology’s ability to create lightweight designs made of fewer parts. Traditional manufacturing techniques on the other hand, often rely on multiple materials and create objects out of many different parts. An example of this a household iron which could be made up of as many as 95 different components and 17 different materials. If the same object had to be Additively Manufactured it could be redesigned to consist of a single part and would be produced using one material. One of the reasons for this is that many Additively Manufactured objects use lattice designs which use fewer materials and yet are as durable as objects traditionally manufactured. Carbon and Incase recently announced a partnership to create protective cases and skins for mobile devices (featured image up top of smartphone cases being 3D printed by the Carbon M2 3D printer) What’s noteworthy about this partnership is that the companies plan on integrating lattice structures into the mobile cases. This will ensure they’re more lightweight, durable and will help reduce excess waste.

Incase will have access to Carbon M2 printers and programmable UV-curable resins.
Incase will have access to Carbon M2 printers

At the material level, Additive Manufacturing also makes it easier for manufacturers to reduce waste and make the world a little greener at the same time. This is because manufacturers can decide to use a more environmentally friendly and perhaps even a recycled material as Michelin did with their 3D printed airless tire. The tire is made from recycled materials and is recyclable which further helps with waste reduction. There are also projects like Print Your City from Rotterdam based design studio The New Raw which uses 3D printing to transform recycled plastic bags into recyclable urban furniture. This environmentally friendly initiative not only helps with recycling but aims to draw people’s attention to the damaging effects of the throwaway culture.

Print Your City a project which turns plastic bags into 3D printed furniture
Print Your City a project which turns plastic bags into 3D printed furniture

Supply Chain Innovation

Increasingly we’re seeing how Additive Manufacturing is transforming the supply chain by reducing the number of supply chain stages. This creates a more efficient and innovative distribution process which in turn has positive environmental implications. Supply chain innovation isn’t a pipedream. Companies such as Adidas are always on the lookout for ways to decentralize production, and react more quickly to the customer’s needs. That’s why the company plans to open one of their Speedfactory branches in Atlanta similar to its existing Speedfactory in Ansbach, Germany.

Adidas’ Speedfactory, a sophisticated footwear production site that relies heavily on Additive Manufacturing, allows the company to source and produce locally which reduces long shipping distances. The Speedfactory will also help reduce the time and number of sports shoes needed to manufacture a design. Typically retailers like Adidas will begin the design process at least a year before production, making the shoes in batches of 50,000 to 100,000 pairs. With Speedfactory the design process is shortened to a few days and the company is able to create batches of as little as 500 pairs.

Lattice geometry on Adidas' 3D printed shoe
Lattice geometry on Adidas’ 3D printed shoe

The collaboration between Adidas and Carbon is another example of how the traditional production cycle is being sidestepped in favor of something more efficient and environmentally friendly. Using Carbon’s technology, Adidas was able to skip prototyping altogether and iterate more than 50 different lattices for the midsole before landing on the current design. This means that instead of mass-producing thousands of identical pairs, Adidas was able to custom manufacture soles to suit each customer’s weight, foot contour and running habits. This enables the sport shoes retailer to manufacture goods for a market of one efficiently and economically. More than 100,000 pairs of these shoes will be available by the end of  2018.

Materialise has partnered with winter sports gear company Tailored Fits to create an end-to-end digital supply chain for custom ski boot insoles. The companies have developed a customization platform which scans a customers’ feet in about 10 minutes. It then takes under 10 days for the customer to receive their personalized 3D printed insoles. Materialise and Tailored Fits designed this solution to automate the design-to-delivery process and in this way significantly shorten the supply chain.


Materialise and Tailored Fits 3D printed insoles
Materialise and Tailored Fits 3D printed insoles

Then there is MINI which recently launched a service called MINI Yours Customized. The service lets customers customize certain parts of their car such as the side panels, interior trims and door sills. This creates a supply chain which can easily be adapted to suit the customer’s needs and individual tastes. It also limits over-production and inventory as it means that parts can be printed on-demand.

As more companies turn to Additive Manufacturing as a viable alternative to traditional manufacturing, we’re starting to see how this technology can be used to transform supply chains, business models and even the use of resources. It’s becoming increasingly clear that Additive Manufacturing can play a significant role in not only ensuring the sustainability of manufacturing, but also in paving the way for environmentally efficient manufacturing processes.

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