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AM Improves Sustainability Across the Supply Chain

Max Siebert
By Max Siebert CEO and Co-Founder, Replique
Huge inventories don’t have to be maintained when parts can be produced on demand.

Individuals and businesses are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of sustainability, making it a bigger part of our daily lives. This now extends to the production sector, driven forward by end-user demands and new industry regulations. Here is how additive manufacturing (AM) can offer an efficient and environmentally friendly solution for production and supply chains.

Additive Manufacturing Allows Sustainable Design

AM offers a new way of designing products that allows the creation of topology-optimized designs. By redesigning, the 3D-printed part can accomplish the same task, and even improve performance compared with the original part, while using less material. Companies can also integrate a multipiece part and print it as a single unit (part consolidation). This results in less material and energy consumption during production compared with traditional methods. Production time also is trimmed, as fewer parts need manufacturing and assembling. Additionally, part consolidation can offer better-performing parts with increased durability.

Less Material Waste

In production, manufacturers look at two essential factors: material consumption and energy efficiency. There is always waste when using traditional manufacturing methods. For example, in subtractive manufacturing, such as CNC, manufacturers start with a block of solid material then remove some to achieve a final shape. In AM, however, material usage is much more efficient.

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) provides a good example: Parts are built layer by layer, adding only the material that is needed, so—other than support structures—there is no wasted material.

Other AM technologies using powders or resins work differently. With powder- and resin-based AM, a full layer of material is built, which is then processed by a laser or fusing agent, depending on the technology. After the first material layer is processed, a new full layer is added until the part is finished. As any unprocessed powder or resin can be reused for the next print, it is possible to eliminate material wastage.

Conversely, support structures and failed prints are often needed, especially for more complicated parts. It is common for test parts to be wasted before finding the right printing parameters and build orientation. However, developments in simulation now allow us to predict potential printing issues beforehand, therefore reducing in-process waste.

Energy Consumption and AM: Is it Really Sustainable?

Due to specialized use cases, the answer for this is not simple. Differences in machine, product, and process characteristics make it difficult to compare AM with traditional methods. Compared with subtractive methods, AM can be more energy efficient, especially when considering its reduced material consumption. However, compared to injection molding, AM’s energy usage is generally acknowledged to be higher due to its much longer production time per part. But other factors—such as energy consumption in producing the mold, production volume, and material efficiency— must be considered, too. When evaluating lower volumes, AM is a more energy-efficient option.

Production on Demand Cuts Warehousing Waste

In addition to production benefits, AM also delivers sustainability benefits in the supply chain. Other manufacturing methods often require a minimum lot size to enable cost-efficient production, often leading to overproduction and parts stored as inventory. This increases storage costs and, if the parts aren’t sold, potentially creates more wastage. For companies offering spare parts, this can be a big problem. Companies are usually bound to suppliers that often stipulate huge minimum order quantities, even if only a few spare parts are needed.

With AM, it is affordable to produce only the number of parts needed. Large inventories aren’t needed, because parts can be produced on demand.

Replique’s 3D4U project with Germany-based home appliance manufacturer Miele demonstrates this well. End customers can order parts via Miele’s online shop. The parts are then printed and shipped straight to the customer. Thanks to the capability for digital storage and on-demand production, Miele has the flexibility to provide customers new accessories quickly and cost efficiently from a batch size of just one.

With a promised total lead time of just five working days, including shipping, it shows that AM can offer fast and affordable parts while avoiding waste.

Minimized Transport Routes Will Reduce CO2 Emissions

The advent of AM is transforming logistics, shifting from linear manufacturing with centralized distribution to a decentralized network of suppliers, production partners, and customers. This is enabled by low investment costs, as one machine can produce a variety of parts.

Minimizing transport movements comes with a positive impact for the environment, as the carbon footprint of each part is reduced. Parts are then shipped to wherever they are needed, which could be on the other side of the world. This also reduces lead time, which is especially beneficial during supply chain disruptions.

In summary, incorporated as part of a print-on-demand model, AM can reduce a company’s energy consumption, material waste, and carbon footprint. This also comes with benefits to supply chain operability. Traditional supply chains require several steps, each prone to disruption, whereas AM shortens the supply chain and makes it more resilient.

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