Sustainability is a very important topic, and we even started the #AMsustains series to cover it. Last week, I was honored to moderate a panel hosted by Women in 3D Printing EMEA, under the leadership of EMEA Chair Elvira Leon. My co-organizer was fellow Ambassador Valeria Tirelli (CEO of Aidro) who was also a panelist alongside Marie Langer (CEO of EOS), Pantea Khanshaghaghi (Project Leader at Equinor), and Alessandra Zini (EU Policy Officer & Projects Coordinator at CECIMO) – a quartet of knowledgeable, smart ladies who illuminated the complex and multifaceted relationship between additive manufacturing (AM) and sustainability. In this post I will summarize just some of the important data, interesting applications, and thought-full insights they shared. For the full effect I encourage you to see the video of the panel.
Data is King, or Queen
To frame the sustainability issue, the panel presented some general numbers. Khanshaghaghi started by noting the world generates 51Bn tons of CO2 a year and 31%(!) of that is due to the manufacturing industry. That is almost a third and much more than I had assumed. Khanshaghaghi also pointed out that there is another metric we should be conscious of: how much virgin materials (just taken from nature) we consume, especially minerals. She explained that each year we are extracting 90Bn tons of material from nature (that’s 12 tons per person per year!) and only 9.1% of that is recyclable. “It’s clear that we already got and used what’s easy to get and use” she explains – now it’s harder to extract and we need to move to a more sustainable model and lower the amounts extracted annually.
It is therefore no surprise that regulators are taking note. “Climate change is at the center of the European Commission agenda” said CECIMO’s Zini. The EU’s Green Deal calls for reducing emissions 55% by 2030 and achieving climate neutrality by 2050. While there is a wealth of general information about emissions and other sustainability metrics generally, in AM we are lacking. Langer shared that EOS is working hard to gather such data – “getting the right data is very important. We talk about sustainability but we still need to create the proof points compared to conventional analysis”.
Data can sometimes be surprising, for example: in 2020 with COVID when there was very limited air travel (or any international travel) and some production was shut down we only emitted about 5% less than in 2019 (even though the air travel sector dropped almost in half in emissions in that period). On the flip side, COVID helped AM or as Langer put it: “COVID contributed to the understanding that AM is not just cool technology, but rather very useful and changes supply chains, solving disruptions”. Zini adds that the crisis was a wake up call for the regulators who now realize “digitalization of the supply chain is key if we want to achieve our climate goals”.
Designing Sustainably, and for AM
We all know that DfAM (Design for Additive Manufacturing) really helps in the success of AM adoption in companies – Aidro (represented on the panel by Tirelli, its CEO) is a great example of that. However, Aidro took it a step further into also thinking sustainably in everything including design. For example, when they needed to test a new valve, they didn’t have the appropriate test bench for it. Rather than buying a new one, or ordering traditional tooling, they designed 2 AM tools (with topological optimization, see photo above) that retrofitted an existing test bench so it can be reused for testing the new valve. A great example of reuse through AM add-ons that are more efficient than their traditional counterparts. In addition, Tirelli showcased a hydraulic component compared with the traditional one – it is a completely different design that is much more efficient and uses much less material. Designing with sustainability (and AM) in mind is really key. Zini mentioned that in order to reach the Green Deal goals, there will need to be major changes to product design and production processes in terms of durability, reusability, repairability (we also discussed the Right to Repair), recycled content, and restrictions on single use and obsolescence. AM helps with much of this through innovative thinking like the applications Tirelli highlighted. On the consumer side, the EU is conducting open consultations to gather public concerns (participate here) but it is clear that having more durable and repairable products is in the public’s interest. It is up to the regulator to make sure it aligns also with the interests of the businesses selling these products. In the end it is a business, and it has to make economic sense, not just be something for the good of the planet.
Another example of thinking differently are personalized insoles. Langer mentioned that EOS worked with a customer that was a traditional insole manufacturer to create customized 3D printed insoles. Why is this sustainable? Most people have uneven feet but with traditional insoles they are symmetrical on both sides. To get a fitted pair you would need to buy 2 pairs: one for left and one for right. The other 2 insoles were simply waste – obviously not a sustainable approach. With the option to customize and personalize with AM this waste is avoided. On the industrial side Langer showcased an Airbus latch shaft which was made of 10 parts and was redesigned into 1 AMed part which is 45% lighter and 25% less expensive saving 3 tons of CO2 emissions per year per plane that is fitted with these. On the other hand, Khanshaghaghi gave an example where a motor fan had failed at Equinor and the fan itself was obsolete and therefore unavailable. The vendor’s recommendation was to replace the entire motor – what a waste! Instead Equinor’s AM group 3D printed a replacement fan (blow on the right next to the original) and avoided trashing an operational motor just because of 1 part. These are the 2 sides of replacing an entire assembly with a single AM part: you need to replace the whole assembly if one part of it breaks but you also gain advantages (reduced weight and cost, and a simpler supply chain) from this consolidation. It’s a matter of degree, probably.
Digital Supply Chains, or Networks
Every single participant on the panel stressed the importance of moving to digital supply chains in order to become more sustainable. It is clear why but perhaps some numbers from Khanshaghaghi will put it in proportion. “Today at Equinor we own a physical “just in case” inventory that is worth €3Bn and 80% of it is not going to be used – we are wasting a lot of space, we are wasting a lot of material, and we are polluting a lot to create and maintain it.” AM allows companies to move from “just in case” to “just in time” using what she calls digital supply chain networks. Once you think about it, it really is a supply network rather than a more linear supply chain – you have local alternatives even if certain links fail and you can offer a much larger variety and only produce those parts of that huge offering that are needed. Altogether a more robust, efficient, and sustainable way to go.
There were many more insights (see the panel video) and also some hope for the future. Each member of the panel gave her vision towards the future but I’d like to end with the words of Valeria Tirelli: “I imagine a future in which we think about sustainability every day in every moment – every time we use a product or throw away an old object” – she has certainly enacted that with various initiatives at Aidro, including repurposing the wooden shipping case of their EOS 3D printer.
For more insights and information on additive manufacturing (3D printing) follow us on LinkedIn or subscribe to our newsletter for weekly updates. Pics: top 3D printed figurines from the MUJI To Go project, Aidro 3D printed tooling, and Equinor’s replacement motor fan.