Did you know that industrial processes and energy consumption are responsible for one-fifth of global CO2 emissions? This is a significant amount! As a result, manufacturing companies are under pressure to implement sustainability policies to control their carbon footprint, reduce costs, and improve their reputation to attract customers and employees.
Decision-makers now prefer environmentally friendly manufacturing technologies with a lower carbon footprint, but it’s still a challenge to better understand and implement sustainable processes while addressing the carbon footprint.
One technology that’s been in the spotlight is additive manufacturing (AM), which is commonly referred to as the popular term “3D printing“. Due to its toolless and low-waste nature, AM is a potential alternative to conventional methods that devour energy. Manufacturers are therefore keen to learn more about AM’s sustainability, but it’s not easy.
At 3D Spark, we take sustainable manufacturing to heart. We have been developing tools to quantify the carbon footprint of additive manufacturing based on feedback from a variety of manufacturers. In this article, we share our insights and discuss the carbon footprint of additive manufacturing, recent efforts to understand its sustainability, how this impacts manufacturing industry decision-makers, and how can they tackle this issue.
Additive Manufacturing: Not Easy to Assess
While additive manufacturing has been offered as a potential alternative to conventional manufacturing (CM) due to its energy efficiency, decision-makers face several questions to justify any major investment in AM:
- Is AM really faster, more cost-efficient, and more environmentally friendly than CM?
- There are so many available AM technologies. Which one is the best for my organization?
- How can I quantify the savings in cost, lead time, and carbon footprint?
- How much cost or CO2 do I save per process step?
These questions are straightforward but there are no global answers. They must be answered for each individual part, considering various input parameters.
Quantification of carbon footprint: a controversial issue
Cost and lead time aside, quantifying the complete carbon footprint of a manufactured part is a challenge. A good practice is to divide the manufacturing journey into distinct stages. But then, where do you start calculating the carbon footprint? Should you include the manufacturing of the feedstock? If yes, should you take another step back and include the carbon footprint of the raw material production? What about mining?
Analysis of all these steps, what we can call the cradle-to-grave carbon footprint of a part, is evaluated under Life-cycle assessment (LCA), as defined by the DIN EN ISO 14040/44 standard. Tools such as Sphera’s Life Cycle Assessment Software (GaBi) help companies assess the environmental effects of their activities. Ideally, LCA should include the complete product lifecycle in the carbon footprint calculation, comprising these elements among others:
- Raw material extraction e.g., mining
- Feedstock (filament, powder, wire, etc.) production
- Energy consumption of the printing process
- Fail rates
- Material waste & recycle
- Post-processing such as heat treatment, HIP, surface finishing
- Transport & storage of each life-cycle step
- Part lifetime
There are only a handful of LCA studies for AM-made parts. But data is increasing in accord with increasing interest in the topic (see below Further Reading). With more data available now than in the past, the initial hype of AM being the ultimate carbon-saver is losing traction and a more realistic picture is being drawn. AM suppliers themselves have an interest in marketing AM as environment-friendly, but they also seem to be transparent and sincere about better understanding the environmental impacts of AM.
For example, the Additive Manufacturer Green Trade Association (AMGTA), a league of several major AM machine, material, and software companies, has initiated several LCA studies. Their results confirm that AM might have a larger carbon footprint than CM per mass of material for certain parts in some cases.
Roland Berger, a Munich-based consulting firm also points out the high carbon footprint of AM if feedstock production and post-processing are taken into account. These studies do not conclude that AM is less sustainable; they rather encourage a multi-dimensional assessment of AM.
Is AM still sustainable?
Yes, if we look at the bigger picture! It is important to recognize that it is not a competition between CM and AM, and the best manufacturing method depends on the part, material, use-case, and pragmatic restrictions in an organization. A comparison of the carbon footprint of the same part made with CM and AM is therefore not always a good reference for strategic decisions. First, the environmental benefits of AM are more pronounced if the manufacturers think additive starting from the design phase. Second, AM might have some less obvious environmental benefits:
- AM enables an on-demand manufacturing mentality so it can reduce inventory to save storage room, energy, and wasted obsolete parts.
- AM does not require part-specific tooling and it might lead to part consolidation in some cases, so resources for tooling and assembly are saved.
- CO2 savings from enhanced performance or reduced weight of AM parts can outweigh the carbon footprint of manufacturing. Good examples are efficient AM-made fuel nozzles or low-weight components in aerospace.
- AM may enable the repair of parts by adding material in a controlled way. This eliminates the reproduction of tooling for obsolete parts and saves a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions. Good examples are propellers or large metal parts that are not produced anymore.
What does it all mean for a day-to-day decision-maker?
A holistic view of carbon footprint is crucial at a corporate level and Life-cycle Assessments are helpful in strategic decisions. Usually, however, manufacturers need simpler tools to check sustainability for day-to-day decisions. Even the simple question “What is the carbon footprint of the manufacturing steps on my shop floor / in my department?” paves the way for more sustainable manufacturing. After all, the carbon footprint of individual product life-cycle stages is a reliable indicator of overall sustainability.
Answering the question above in addition to the cost and lead-time savings might help executives, managers, and engineers save resources, create awareness, justify their decisions for selecting a certain manufacturing technology over more conventional technologies, and lower the barriers for a wider transformation towards sustainability.
Don’t miss out on the opportunity to revolutionize your manufacturing process with 3D Spark! Our software tool is specifically designed to empower decision-makers at both strategic and day-to-day levels, providing you with comprehensive cost analysis, lead-time estimation, and carbon footprint reports for certain manufacturing steps. If you are interested in learning more about our service, book a demo with us today. We’d be more than happy to discuss how we can help your company achieve sustainable manufacturing and take your operations to the next level!
Çağrı is responsible for Business Development & Customer Success at 3D Spark. He has offered solutions to global manufacturers for more than 10 years during his employment in materials and additive manufacturing companies such as SLM Solutions, W. R. Grace & Co. and Surflay Nanotec GmbH. Çağrı is passionate about 3D printing and believes strongly in the future of additive manufacturing.
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Photo credits: First photo by Jas Min on Unsplash