Additive Manufacturing: A Sustainable Alternative

Author photo: Daniel Keyser
By Daniel Keyser


Sustainability has become a primary business imperative. Companies are looking for a way to increase their Additive Manufacturingsustainability options within their daily business operations. But how exactly does a business focused on manufacturing turn their operation more sustainable, greener, and more circular? The answer may very well lie in additive manufacturing -- 3D printing at an industrial scale. Additive manufacturing provides many unique benefits over traditional subtractive manufacturing processes, and these benefits correlate with a more sustainable manufacturing process.

The Production Process

Additive manufacturing has a distinct materials advantage when it comes to the production process of creating a part from either a polymer or metal printer over traditional subtractive manufacturing techniques. The standard example in talking about the efficiency of the production process of additive manufacturing in comparison to traditional subtractive manufacturing processes is to talk about aeronautical parts production.

In aerospace, parts manufacturing can be a long and expensive process due to the nature of the parts required, and the rigors and standards required of those parts. In a traditional subtractive manufacturing process, a piece of bar stock can be reduced up to 95 percent through milling work. This process takes several hours, is limited to one component per piece of material worked and may require several machines running at the same time to meet production. Additive manufacturing changes that formula significantly. Instead of starting with a base piece of stock for the aerospace part example, additive manufacturing starts with metal power. This powder is then placed into a machine and either has lasers fired into it or rendered into molten metal and drip fed to assemble parts layer by layer like Fused Deposition Modeling printers through a process called Directed Energy Deposition (DED). There is also Binder Jetting, which involves spraying powder with a glue, that is then placed into a sintering oven to become a part.

The advantages here are threefold. Material expenditure is reduced in the example part. Instead of transportation of a piece of bar stock and then milling of 90 – 95 percent of the base material out of it, additive can work requiring only the base metal required to complete the end product. Additive manufacturing also enables increased production volume. A five or six axis CNC machine is limited to a part at a time. Depending on the build chamber size of an additive machine, multiple parts can be printed, layer by layer, at the same time. Finally, the design of the part may be adapted to be printed in ways that traditional subtractive processes cannot accomplish. Referring to the aerospace part once again and utilizing Design for Additive Manufacturing (DfAM) and generative design, a part or a series of parts can be made more efficient to incorporate into one part, which may have internal organic-like structures that would be impossible to create through traditional subtractive processes.

Through the efficacy of operations, build volume advantages, and ability to implement design choices not possible through traditional subtractive processes, additive manufacturing has a unique production process advantage that translates to better suit sustainable production requirements for businesses searching for them.

Materials Recycling

While additive manufacturing has a clear and more sustainable production process over traditional subtractive manufacturing, another area where it has a sustainable advantage is in the powder or filament used. As established in the previous section, 3D printing allows for a minimum expenditure in material, which leads to the need for much less overall recycling as there is not necessarily as much waste generated through the process.


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Keywords: Additive Manufacturing, 3D Printing, Sustainability, Recycling, ARC Advisory Group.

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