Additive manufacturing processes, such as 3D printing, can offer increased sustainability opportunities compared to traditional manufacturing methods. Globally, governments are growing more concerned about the impact of manufacturing on the environment, leading businesses to seek out more sustainable production methods. In this guide, we’ll explore the challenges and the benefits of sustainability in additive manufacturing as well as our predictions for how additive manufacturing could impact sustainability in the future.

What are the current sustainability challenges in manufacturing?

Sustainability in manufacturing is a much-talked-about issue, with both socio-economic and environmental considerations. The international community, represented by the United Nations, emphasizes the importance of building a more sustainable global economy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and meet sustainability goals, including those set in the Paris Climate Agreement.

These Sustainable Development Goals introduced by the United Nations include targets based on the following expectations to which the manufacturing industry is expected to contribute;

  • Clean water and sanitation
  • Affordable and clean energy
  • Responsible consumption and production
  • Climate action

Investors are increasingly demanding more concrete sustainability efforts from manufacturing companies. Sustainability is no longer seen as just a marketing exercise but is integral to operations strategies.

Organizations like the CDP are driving transparency and environmental disclosure among suppliers. This places additional pressure on process manufacturers to provide data on how they address climate and water risks and opportunities.

It’s not just external influences that affect sustainability in manufacturing. Internal processes like traceability solutions can also help improve supply chain visibility, maintain brand value, and meet regulatory requirements. Transparency and traceability are critical for authentic sustainability, and to avoid greenwashing.

How can additive manufacturing improve sustainability in manufacturing, now and in the future?

A number of industries are adopting additive manufacturing processes in order to help achieve their sustainability goals, including the automotive industry and the packaging industry. The key benefits of adopting additive manufacturing processes include;

  • Reduced waste from materials: The additive manufacturing process builds products layer by layer, meaning there is no excess material to be discarded.
  • Onsite production: One of the key environmental benefits of 3D printing is that production can occur on-site. This means the need for long-distance transportation of products and raw materials is eliminated.
  • Optimized design: Additive manufacturing allows the design and creation of custom-made products that would be impossible to produce through traditional manufacturing methods. The lightweight materials used in production also reduce transportation challenges, whilst the custom nature of these products allows superior performance without compromising on environmental impact. 3D printing is also often used for producing spare parts and components, which helps to achieve a circular economy.
  • Reduction in tooling: Traditional manufacturing processes use tooling that can contribute to waste and inefficiency. Additive manufacturing processes reduce the need for tooling components, streamlining the entire manufacturing process.
  • Reduced energy consumption and emissions: While energy consumption depends on the specific 3D printing technology in use, some processes, like selective laser sintering (SLS), can be more energy-efficient than traditional manufacturing processes, such as injection moulding, machining or welding. Some 3D printing processes, particularly those using thermoplastic materials, produce fewer emissions and less pollution compared to traditional manufacturing methods. This contributes to a cleaner and more environmentally friendly production process.
  • On-Demand Production: Additive manufacturing supports on-demand and just-in-time production, reducing the need for maintaining large inventories and overproducing items that might go unsold, which is common in traditional manufacturing.

So… is 3D Printing Sustainable?

There are a number of contributing factors to exactly how sustainable 3D printing is, such as – how sustainable the materials used are, and how energy-exhaustive the additive manufacturing process used is. Despite this, when compared to traditional manufacturing processes it is often the more sustainable option. 

What are Sustainable 3D Printing Materials?

Ongoing investment, research and development mean that new sustainable materials are being tested and used in additive manufacturing all the time by companies, including Formlabs and Desktop Metal. Some of the most commonly used sustainable materials include:

  • Bioplastics
  • Recycled Filaments
  • PLA (Polylactic Acid)
  • PVA (Polyvinyl Alcohol)
  • Algae-Based Filaments
  • Cellulose-Based Filaments

How can Alexander Daniels Global help?

Whether you’re an employer within the additive manufacturing sector or a professional in the field, your input is valuable to us! Our annual salary survey offers valuable insights into the employment landscape for 3D printing careers, and your contributions assist us in providing an accurate reflection of the current industry status. Whether the future of sustainability influences the additive manufacturing roles you’re applying or hiring for, let us know in our survey today.

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