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Sustainability – Is Additive Manufacturing a green deal?

Sustainability – Is Additive Manufacturing a green deal?

March 28, 2022

A critical look at AM’s green credentials and a roadmap to a climate-friendly future

As companies in every industry get serious about targeting carbon neutrality in the years ahead, Additive Manufacturing (AM) can be no exception. By playing the zero-waste manufacturing card, AM has gained a reputation as a poster child in this respect. Yet this perception is at best superficial, and at worst perhaps misleading.

"For all its ability to go where conventional manufacturing has never gone before, additive manufacturing has the potential to get greener – and a lot more transparent."
Portrait of Bernhard Langefeld
Senior Partner
Frankfurt Office, Central Europe

In our paper “Sustainable Additive Manufacturing”, we scratch below the surface and examine the reality behind the hype. What it finds is a more nuanced picture: Additive manufacturing can indeed make a potentially vast contribution to carbon-neutral economies. However, it must become more transparent about those areas where it still falls short. It must openly assess every phase in the lifecycle of AM-produced parts – AM materials production, parts manufacturing, parts useage and disposal/recycling – to showcase its true potential and benefits. It must also work hard to genuinely improve its overall environmental footprint .

The problem of production – Comparing apples with pears

In a straight comparison, the paper explains how AM parts usually have a larger environmental footprint than conventionally manufactured parts until its product use. Its powders, filaments and resins naturally have to be processed before they are 3D printed , all of which consumes energy, emits carbon and generates waste. Yet “straight comparison” is not always possible or reasonable: One of additive manufacturing’s key USPs is precisely that it can make parts that conventional manufacturing techniques cannot.

Moreover, it is in the use and recycling phases that AM parts genuinely comes into its own and can realize fuel efficiency gains of up to 75% throughout the product lifecycle. Detailed examples from aerospace and other industries show how this can be done. Importantly, though, Roland Berger also stresses the need for AM companies need to conduct full lifecycle assessments (LCAs) to achieve full transparency. Rare in the industry today, these assessments are essential to prove whether AM genuinely has a lower overall environmental impact than conventional parts. Only then can customers see what they stand to gain by shifting to additive manufacturing. And only then does the industry itself have a baseline from which to become more sustainable.

Four steps to sustainable additive manufacturing

The linked article describes the four-step roadmap Roland Berger has developed to establish and augment AM’s sustainability credentials.

  1. Make AM’s environmental footprint more transparent
    Based on the LCAs described above, we argue that full disclosure of the carbon footprint for AM materials, machinery and processes should be published based on standardized reporting methodologies. Where possible, details of recycling and zero-waste options should be added to give AM users full visibility about the environmental implications of choosing different AM materials and equipment.
  2. Develop a suitable lifecycle analysis database
    Since LCAs are laborious to produce, comprehensive databases should be made available to verify energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions throughout a product’s lifecycle. Besides facilitating transparency about sustainability, this approach would also help customers see the value added by specific AM applications.
  3. Predict environmental impact before printing
    If users knew in advance whether and by how much AM can reduce CO2 emissions, this would go a long way toward confirming its status as a sustainable production technology. That in turn could open the door to applications where AM is currently regarded as too expensive to compete.
  4. Take action to reduce the environmental footprint of AM
    The article points out that AM was initially designed to push back the boundaries of what is possible in manufacturing , not to reduce carbon emissions . While it has evidenced tremendous promise on the first count, its carbon emissions – along with other aspects of sustainability – remain to be optimized. Here, Roland Berger spells out how material producers must identify their main sources of emissions, explore the use of renewable fuels and even move toward alternative (renewable) raw materials. The makers of AM machinery must follow suit, stabilizing processes and reducing the need for postprocessing and testing. Manufacturers of parts must design for environmental performance and highlight how this benefits users’ business cases. Lastly, the AM industry must rise to the challenge of recyclability.

In plotting a clear course to these goals, Roland Berger shows exactly how AM can transform itself from a comparatively green fabrication process to a truly green technology.

Study

Sustainability – Is Additive Manufacturing a green deal?

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Additive manufacturing can make a big contribution to carbon-neutral economies, but it must become more transparent about those areas where it still falls short.

Published March 2022. Available in
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Further readings
Portrait of Bernhard Langefeld
Senior Partner
Frankfurt Office, Central Europe
+49 69 29924-6143