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3 Unexpected Ways Additive Manufacturing Can Drive a Circular Economy

Updated: Mar 8, 2023

In 2023, linear economies will have a stranglehold on the consumer market.

Production, particularly in commercial settings, has quickly evolved into a continuous process of addition and disposal, with new products entering the market at the same rate that they are being discarded.

This harmful habit is only escalating its effects, adding more reasons to be concerned about the current climate crisis. Given that plastics make up only a small portion of manufactured goods and that by 2050, "the [cumulative] greenhouse gas emissions from plastic could reach over 56 gigatons - 10-13 percent of the entire remaining carbon budget," according to the Centre for Environmental Law, it is the manufacturing sector's responsibility to lead change.

However, this does not imply that there are no solutions. Additive manufacturing appears to be poised to effectively reverse this unsettling trend.

Over the past few years, this technological function has become more widely known. Most frequently, in this context, the distinctive physical mechanisms of additive manufacturing (AM) are alluded to. As the name implies, products are assembled by continuously "adding" material rather than "subtracting" it, meaning that only the minimal amount of material necessary is used, significantly reducing waste. In contrast, in subtractive manufacturing, material is removed from a source, leaving behind enormous amounts of waste.

Although it is unquestionably a great illustration of the value-add of additive manufacturing, there are still some difficulties. In post-manufacturing, there is frequently a need to smooth out rough surfaces, which results in the generation of waste, an operational aspect that is "being largely underestimated," according to a research paper from the Technical University of Denmark. Such procedures also pose several health risks because they release tiny particles into the air and put workers at risk of respiratory injuries.

However, it is still true that AM is a much less wasteful manufacturing technology. Researchers from all over the world are working to find solutions as R&D in the AM field picks up speed. But for now, relying solely on this advantage is insufficient.

It's not necessary either. In addition to its "additive" functionality, 3D printing has a wide range of valuable qualities that make it an ideal tool for solving the waste problem in the industry.

In this article, we explore three more ways that AM is bringing linear economies full circle.

1) Recycled Materials

Image Credit: Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games

While waste is a burden to the environment, it is gold to additive manufacturing.

There has been a revolution in attitudes toward recycling as a result of the growth of AM. The 3D printing industry has jumped to the task, avoiding the design-based and technical challenges that other manufacturing technologies would face when it comes to recycled materials (using recycled materials in CNC machining is practically unheard of).

Particularly, the distinctively "additive" nature of AM welcomes a wider range of materials that can be manufactured; in contrast, the act of "adding" to construct is much more flexible, requiring only open extrusion or melding together, whereas subtractive machines would likely require special adjustment to accommodate for the unpredictable variability of materials.

The opportunity has undoubtedly been taken advantage of by manufacturers with exciting creativity. For instance, the Milan-based startup Krill Design manufactures lamps made primarily of compostable recycled Sicilian orange peels. As a result, the 'Ohmie' lamp's final "lights-out" moment does not signal the beginning of its protracted, rusting life on a trash heap but rather its return to the soil, possibly to feed a new generation of orange trees. Its Krill Design is lighting the circular way towards a more sustainable future.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games were also creative 3D printing users, metaphorically cheering for humanity's victory over climate change. Asao Tokolo, a consumer goods designer, worked with Proctor & Gamble, the International Olympic Committee, and others to create 98 podiums using additive manufacturing and recycled plastic collected from ocean cleanups. The creative project resonantly reinforced and disseminated the capacity to derive resonance and value from 'waste' materials.

Ironically, the idea of "waste" is itself being discarded under the influence of 3D printing. Whatever the material, it can always be brought back to life.

2) Repair and Refurbishment

Image Credit: Optomec

It is possible to give worn-out and torn products new life in addition to using recycled materials. Not every situation calls for a fresh start.

In situations like these, additive manufacturing is optimized to produce high-quality results while minimizing the burden of unnecessary waste.

This capability is demonstrated by the fact that "the role of AM has expanded from the fabrication of parts to parts repair and restoration in remanufacturing," according to a 2019 research paper for the Processes journal. In this way, additive manufacturing technologies play a crucial role in resisting the constant pressure to be "new," a key factor in the hazardous waste cycle that permeates the modern market.

The unmatched design flexibility of additive manufacturing makes it simple to recreate damaged components, returning goods to their original performance standard, whether it's a chipped door handle, a snapped arm on a pair of glasses, or a defective part in a vintage car. The range of AM's restoration capabilities is only expanding, along with advancements in 3D scanning technology that make CAD model recreations more accurate.

Thomas Mair's 3D printed "Kara" coffee maker is specifically made with breakage in mind, which is unusual in products. The machine, which is made of ABS plastic and is 3D printed, is designed so that every part can be easily taken out, fixed, and replaced, adding years to its lifespan.

In an effort to reduce the difficulty and increase accessibility of the task of repair, "Kara" challenges the conventional wisdom that breaks machines "end up on the sidewalk—or in a landfill" (Fast Company).

3D printing is making progress in an entirely different area: the international effort to rebuild the recently destroyed Notre-Dame. The Rotterdam-based company Concr3de's inkjet method has been used as a creative solution in light of their progress toward 3D printing stone. The project, which proposes to use the iconic building's burned-out materials, shows how AM can be used for joint recycling and restoration while also giving a historical masterpiece new life.

Additive manufacturing is changing the meaning of what it means for a product to be defective, turning it from a damning death sentence to a chance for a creative solution to emerge.

3) Reduced Physical Inventory

Image Credit: Wilhelm Gunkel via. Unsplash

While additive manufacturing makes it possible to recycle products and restore outdated ones, its advantages also extend to the pre-production stage with a similar impact. Even before the machine is turned on, the processes used in additive manufacturing (AM) contribute to waste reduction and promote more environmentally friendly production practices.

To prepare for and accommodate changing levels of demand, it is customary for many traditional manufacturers to rely on maintaining physical stock in warehouses.

However, warehouses come with several time-, space-, and money-consuming disadvantages. It can be time-consuming to keep the space up to date and renew the inventory, which is frustrating because that time could have been used for something more productive. In fact, just paying for the space is a bothersome requirement.

But this problem is being addressed by the primarily digital mechanisms used in additive manufacturing. The official debut of the "digital warehouse" coincided with the advent of 3D printing.

AM enables manufacturers to store digital catalogs of CAD files that are transferable between various production facilities, as opposed to keeping physical copies of products. Parts can be produced as and when they are needed, rather than collecting dust in an echoing room and, eventually, being thrown away if no longer desired, thanks to the speed and flexibility of additive manufacturing (AM) technologies that cater to fluctuating demand.

According to All3DP's article on "Top Digital Warehouse Platforms for Spare Part 3D Printing," AMFG's digital warehousing module, which is a component of its end-to-end MES & workflow automation solution, "enables your company to keep the production data in a single, validated system, ensuring that parts are produced according to their specifications each and every time," making "distributed production economically viable."

Digital inventories eliminate the need for physical warehouses in addition to ensuring more dependable production and streamlining the logistics of manufacturing across multiple production facilities. When parts are made as needed, operations become much simpler because unnecessary material waste is prevented.

Conventions regarding manufacturing workflows may change as a result of additive manufacturing's ability to adapt to changing demand rather than ineffectively attempting to plan for it in advance.

Slashing Waste, Boosting Revenue

It is essential to consider all phases of a product's life cycle on the road to achieving true economic circularity. Pre-production, production, and post-production processes all have a role to play, so revision and adaptation must be taken into account everywhere.

Although the severe environmental damage caused by manufacturing's wasteful tendencies is becoming impossible to ignore, it is not surprising that businesses are finding it difficult to break the habit. Sales are soaring and revenue keeps piling higher in the modern consumer market's culture of rapid turnover.

However, the solution to this global issue need not promote sustainability at the expense of diminished profits. Improvement in both areas is now possible thanks to additive manufacturing.

Increased production efficiency, increased design adaptability, and increased production flexibility give AM the ability to make money and save money while simultaneously creating the conditions for waste to continue to decline.

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