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The Time is Now: Sustainability in Industrial Additive Manufacturing

Avi Reichental
By Avi Reichental Co-Founder, Chairman, & CEO, Nexa3D
Sarah Goehrke
By Sarah Goehrke Senior Director, Strategic Communications and Ecosystems, Nexa3D

Compared to traditional, subtractive means of production, additive manufacturing seems like an obvious improvement in terms of lessening environmental impact.

Rather than milling away material to create geometries, for instance, additive manufacturing (AM) adds only the material needed for the design and any required supports. Some 3D printing processes are support-free, and some are tuned to handle ever higher loads of refreshed/recycled materials, saving on even more material waste.

An array of parts created on NXE 400 systems for use in industry, medical, dental, and other applications. (All images provided by Nexa3D/Trinity Wheeler Photography)

Rather than be bound by the limitations of traditional supply chain and logistics with global shipping and its requisite carbon footprint—and susceptibility to trapped cargo ships, pandemic shutdowns and overflowing ports—AM enables hyperlocal production. No wait for the end user, no carbon footprint from trains, planes and ships: it seems like a win all around, right?

At first blush, sure. There’s a lot to be said for these and many other seemingly obvious benefits of the AM workflow.

For years, the “dirty little secret” of 3D printing was post-processing time. Companies loved to proclaim shorter times spent 3D printing while neglecting to highlight the time, cost or energy required to finish the print job. A maturing industry with widening adoption means more potential users are now more aware of the need to remove supports, wash and cure, smooth, dye and otherwise post-process jobs off the build plate.

That “dirty little secret” isn’t so little—and it’s not so secret anymore. The real “dirty little secret” really hinges more on that first word: AM is still manufacturing, it’s still dirty—and that’s still something no one wants to talk about.

Greenwashing in AM

It’s not enough to 3D print and proclaim environmental friendliness. Today’s 3D printing is not in and of itself a means to zero-carbon operations. While it may be greener than traditional manufacturing, AM remains a powerful contributor to emissions, power consumption and supply chain volume. What 3D printer today is made without a circuit board imported from overseas? Even those made at Nexa3D, where a significant majority of our components are sourced from within 100 miles of our headquarters in Ventura, Calif., rely on certain electronics from China.

A full build volume of 200 venturi tubes printed on an NXE 400.

Plugging in a 3D printer and all its companion systems requires power use. And even the best 3D printing system will not produce perfect prints every time. Iterating over a number of parts means that previous prototypes are quickly rendered obsolete, more often than not destined for landfills.

Resting on the laurels of a more sustainable process does not move the needle. Slapping a feel-good sticker on something and calling it green doesn’t reduce a carbon footprint. It can be all too easy to say 3D printing is better for the environment than conventional manufacturing and paint operations with a green brush in broad strokes. That, my friends, is greenwashing.

And it’s time to stop.

Why the Urgency?

Per the World Economic Forum, manufacturing as a global industry has a “heavy responsibility for emissions of greenhouse gases.” The WEF cites EPA figures that 23 percent of direct carbon emissions in the U.S. result from manufacturing. The situation is similar in Europe, where, the WEF explains, “an annual total of 880 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalents [make] it one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases on the continent.”

As the famed Doomsday Clock remains uncomfortably near to midnight and climate change continues to see human impact—adding into the mix ongoing global pandemic and intensifying geopolitical disruption—it has become very clear that something must be done. Supply-chain fragility uncovered in the past two years especially has expedited the call to action. The 3D printing industry has shown a resilience superior to traditional manufacturing supply chains.

Sustainability in AM

While the call to action is apparent, the steps toward actionable sustainability are somewhat murkier. With the inherent advantages of AM as a less wasteful and more localized production process, there’s already a head start—but it’s not enough.

The COVID-19 pandemic truly illuminated the inherent brittleness and fragility of the global supply chain, throwing into stark light the simple fact that it requires complete transformation. Our additive manufacturing industry holds not just the power but the responsibility to contribute to the sustainability of future manufacturing capabilities. We need to move this from the theoretical to current practice.

We can look at this from the perspective of asking questions like how can we hyper-localize and eliminate all the waste of moving goods around in better supply chain structuring; how can we lightweight and reduce both carbon footprint and energy inputs; how can we think and apply in everything that we do circular economy principles?

More importantly, though, we must ask: How do we make sure that we don’t greenwash all of this, but that we come together, as practitioners, to develop the standards and create the KPIs to demonstrate scientifically and convincingly that we can measure and improve our carbon footprint and enhance sustainability through everything?

Data Creates Community

Identifying, defining, measuring and reporting are necessary, and these steps must happen at a large scale. Transformation on an industrywide basis is not something an individual or a single company can do alone. We must set our egos aside and come together, trusting in one another to build a better future. We must bring humility to a shared table of ideas and contribute our passions, our intense curiosity, our resources, with a sense of collaboration and shared vision. This is after all a world for all of us and for our children and next generations. We must all take responsibility and make it a better world for living.

When it comes to additive manufacturing, we can look in ourselves and see that there is a real promise and a real future where we can make some significant impact on our world. Companies that lay this as a foundation are seeing this as a call to action, a secret sauce of attracting the best talent to develop teams of kindred spirits ready to make a difference together. Bringing diverse minds to the same teams with common objectives brings real innovation, real change.

We as an industry have been on a learning path for the past decades. We have made mistakes and learned from those, and we are on a real journey now with real adoption in production. That is where we can make a difference, leveraging our lessons and bringing those to the table today. It is time right now to acknowledge these lessons and allow ourselves, collectively, to rise above the organizational challenges that can otherwise get in the way of real progress.

Moving Forward with a First Step

Real progress might begin with establishing the first unit of measure or the first formal KPI in a company. It might be identifying the metrics or agreeing on a starting point as a common frame of reference. From there we can begin to demonstrate that we can intentionally and deliberately make progress in circular economy principles: lessening waste, mitigating carbon footprint—or more specifically things like minimizing or eliminating supports in our different 3D printing technologies. Can we eliminate or reduce refresh rates in materials or in powders? Can we lightweight and begin to recommend the right tools, processes and approaches to give engineers the decision design support and the simulation tools—give them the ability to lightweight with confidence?

An array of parts created on NXE 400 systems for use in industry, medical, dental, and other applications.

Starting this journey is necessary, and together that will be at a run, not a walk. We need to begin with education and kick off the transformational processes around lightweighting—not just for aerospace or automotive, but as a fact of AM life where any product can and will benefit from best design practices. In this process, then, we can reduce material use, energy input, transportation fuel and all those emissions factors that make manufacturing such a contributor to significant carbon footprint.

The future, as we have seen, is happening a lot faster than we ever imagined. Today we understand this convergence of exponential technologies that creates change in orders of magnitude. There is so much possible today. Why should it not be possible in a mindful, impactful, sustainable way?

Collaboration is the way ahead for us all. We will sink or swim as an industry when it comes to global impact.

At Nexa3D, we have been lucky to work with a team of kindred spirits to bring innovative, ultrafast technology to the market to digitize the world’s supply chain sustainably. This is our mission, and it is not a journey we undertake alone. With incredible, like-minded partners like those at Henkel, Oqton, and so many others, as well as alongside our resellers and partners the world over, we are poised to go hand in hand toward that exponentially better future. We are on the lookout for those who will join us, intentionally and with action, on this path.

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