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Research Eyes Additive Manufacturing’s Carbon Footprint, Payoff

Ilene Wolff
By Ilene Wolff Contributing Editor, SME Media

Is additive manufacturing’s carbon footprint smaller than those of traditional manufacturing methods?

The Additive Manufacturer Green Trade Association (AMGTA), founded to promote the environmental benefits of additive manufacturing, thinks so. It’s funding research to find out. The group is sponsoring a series of head-to-head life-cycle assessment (LCA) projects to compare AM and traditional processes. Ongoing are two projects, one for binder jetting and another for powder bed fusion. Two more sponsorships, for two additional AM processes, one including polymer and one with metal, are in the works.

The research is funded solely through members’ dues, said Sherry Handel, AMGTA executive director. Those members include companies such as 3D Systems, Barnes Global Advisors, BASF, EOS, GE Additive, HP, Materialise, Siemens, Sintavia, Stratasys, Stryker and Trumpf. Syntavia CEO Brian Neff founded the group in 2019.

“We’re looking at the full range of environmental impacts that happen from the point of taking the ore out of the ground to making AM metal parts and all the environmental impacts along the way, up to and through production, assembly, distribution, transportation, etc., and then doing the same thing with the traditional method to truly compare them on a fair basis to determine which method is the most environmentally friendly,” Handel said. “So it’s very robust.”

In AMGTA’s view, it is helping to fill a gap in AM research, which so far has been segmented to assess specific areas such as waste and energy use of the machines, Handel said. “But there’s little lifecycle assessment research,” she said.

AMGTA was prompted to pursue LCA research by the first project it sponsored, which wasn’t an LCA but a literature review. The resulting paper, “State of Knowledge on the Environmental Impacts of Metal Additive Manufacturing,” is published on the group’s website.

The report “synthesizes existing academic literature comparing the environmental impacts of metal AM with conventional manufacturing methods, and provides context with impacts of common metals and processing methods found in a materials database,” according to AMGTA’s news release. “Its goal is to summarize current knowledge and identify areas where information is sparse, unclear, and much needed.”

Among the paper’s conclusions is AM doesn’t pay off in industries other than aerospace for two reasons: The first is due to its lightweighting potential in view of the high cost of fuel; second is aerospace vehicles’ longevity (25-30 years).

However, a literature review of years-old research on a quickly evolving technology like AM may not be as valid as, say, one in medicine where change happens more slowly.

“Twenty years ago it was pretty true,” said Jonah Myerberg, CTO of Desktop Metal, of the paper’s conclusion. “Making 3D printed parts was time consuming, it was complicated, and so you needed to find the applications that fit.”

That started to change in 2015 when the printing processes became less expensive and faster, leading to lower-cost printed parts, he said:

“And so now it is easier to justify using 3D printing as opposed to investing in tooling or other manufacturing processes. In fact, back in 2015, 2016, 2017 we hit this parity where it was about the same cost if you wanted to go and invest in casting or molding tooling or some sort of high-volume manufacturing process vs. 3D printing. You could basically do one or the other at about the same cost.

“Now we’ve started to go well beyond that. The cost of raw materials has come down and printing has become faster. We’ve gotten to the tipping point where now by no means is aerospace the only industry that can afford AM.”

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