How to make your 3D prints more ecological

The enthusiasts of 3D printing tend to call it a green and eco-friendly technology, mainly due to the reduced material waste. The object is formed by adding material layer by layer, instead of cutting it out as in case of traditional, subtractive manufacturing technologies, therefore less material is being used in the end.

Nevertheless, with all its advantages and drawbacks, 3D printing does impact the environment. On one hand – most of the 3D printers still do work with plastic and contribute to the general pollution, on the other hand – there are so many aspects in which additive manufacturing is actually better to our planet than any other technology!

First of all, the complete design freedom poses the opportunity for the engineers and new product developers to save up on the material and optimize the whole design. And by cutting the material out here and there, smoothening the object and hollowing it, the prototype and a final part can be as convincing as its traditional counterpart, but in the end – more lightweight and less wasteful. Even though the topological optimization of the product design can be tricky or even impossible, the upgrade can lay in 3D printing itself – for example in using less support material but orientating the model in a smart way during slicing, or using the soluble support material, such as PVA.

The choice of material is in fact the most important factor making our 3D printing process more or less ecological. While in general none of the plastics is neutral to the environment in terms of its production, usage and scrappage, some of them may cause less damage to the ocean, biodiversity and other elements of our Planet which are severely damaged since the 1960s when the plastics went into use on a massive scale.

ABS, the most popular 3D printing material, is made from petrochemical compounds that undergo chemical reactions in order to form the plastic polymer. The main compounds used to make ABS are acrylonitrile, butadiene and styrene – so it all comes from oil in the end, and takes painfully long to undergo biodegradation on a landfill or – unfortunately – in the ocean.

PLA, even though not ideal, is a much more renewable plastic for 3D printing. It is a plastic made from corn, that decomposes into water and carbon dioxide in 47 to 90 days – four times faster than a traditional PET-G, which the plastic bags in the supermarkets and bottles are made of.

PLA tends to be criticized for its lower mechanical properties, however materials R&D engineers have made tremendous steps forward in that field, too. At Builder 3D Printers, we successfully use a PRO1 material from Innofil3D (BASF company). It is an engineered counterpart of traditional Polylactic Acid (PLA) of the improved technical specifications, close to the ones of ABS. With a little bit of experience in 3D printing, it provides great results both in fine-detail and very rapid prints.

It is also very important to always get your 3D printing filaments from a trustworthy manufacturer. Cheaper counterparts might be an appealing solution in a short run, but it is worth to pay a little bit more money and be sure that our filament has been manufactured according to certain norms and its production and usage do not impact the environment more than it should.

The interesting alternative appearing recently on the market are the recycled filaments. It is becoming a trend to collect the plastic wastes from different industries, clean it, melt it and extrude it again to a form of wire. It is a complicated process due to the thermal properties of plastics, since it is pretty difficult to obtain uniform mechanical and chemical properties and internal structure through-out the whole spool. However, as the importance of acting rapidly on the climate change has been highlighted during a couple of last environmental summits, there will be more and more parties engineering and optimizing those processes.

The obvious advantages of 3D printing lay also in the supply chain management as well.

Not only is additive manufacturing much more affordable for rapid prototyping of new products, but also it does make it ecological and efficient.

High-end furniture can be a good example of this improvement. Let’s say we want to launch a new chair. We have the design ready, but it is much better for the prospective customer or even our manager to see it live and ‘kicking’ rather than just as a render image on the computer screen. 3D printing of a chair in a good quality may take up to 3 days of machine operating constantly, but it is still much cheaper than producing a mold for making just one piece of this prototype. In this case – if we want to manufacture one thousand plastic chairs, of course injection molding will be the best choice, however if we are not sure of the design or might need to do some further iterations, 3D printing makes it easy and economical.

Another important factor is its accessibility. Having a printer in-house, even a small ones, allows us to prototype, produce some final parts and tooling on demand, without the need to rely on the external suppliers. Yale University suggests that for that reason 3D printing can potentially lead to an increase in the number of disposable consumer products.

It does not necessarily go in the direction of a healthier environmental impact, since having a machine at home, we automatically will produce more plastic than without it.

What might be true for the individuals and 3D printing freaks having their own machine at home, is not necessarily applicable to the businesses. Not only is the time-to-market lower for the new products, but also we leave less carbon footprint, since we do not need to import products from China by plane or rail anymore, and – as a result – cause any percentage of the exhaust fumes. Apart from the volatile compounds of the melted plastics, which inhaled in the closed work spaces may have toxic effect on our organisms.

Summing up, it is always good to remember that additive manufacturing is an additional tool to the conventional technologies, not their substitute.

As long as some applications of 3D printing might not be environmentally desirable, there are various aspects for improvement that have not been pursued yet.

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