There’s a lot of talk these days in the product world about “additive” manufacturing … and some of that talk centers on the sustainable attributes of this process. For those who don’t know what additive manufacturing is (and why would you?!), it’s a pretty revolutionary way to make all sorts of things. Basically, it starts with designing an item on a CAD software platform, translating that computer code into a “stereo lithography” computer code that can be read by a three-dimensional (3D) printer and then having that 3D printer make the item by putting down thousands of layers of material until they build into the final product form. The printer usually uses a laser or an electron beam to fuse the layers together as they are “printed” on top of one another. Totally cool, right? Contract that with most manufacturing today, which is “subtractive” – we start with a piece of material and then grind, shape, press form or cut that piece until we get the item we want. Lots of processes, lots of waste. 3D printing – one process, little or no waste (the printer is really good at using all of the material in the fusing process).
So it would seem that additive manufacturing is a resource-efficient process that smacks of sustainability. Quicker process times and less waste. The ability to make one-offs and rapid prototype. Much less material used. But wait … not so fast! In fact, additive manufacturing can be highly energy-intensive – from running the CAD systems and managing those databases to powering up the sophisticated printers that fuse the material. Before we jump to the conclusion that additive manufacturing is “sustainable” in all instances, we need to apply life cycle analysis (LCA) methodology to sum up the total environmental impacts on a case-by-case basis. Only through this rigorous process can we be sure that we’ve achieved a sustainable result. Don’t forget: the manufacturing process is only one of the many environmental impacts associated with an item’s entire lifespan. In the case of additive manufacturing we may conclude that, as a standalone process, the printing portion of additive manufacturing is a win-win (and I suspect that will be the case very often) and that may tip the balance in its favor, but let’s do our due diligence and look at the whole picture.