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Event Recap: Suspicious sustainability at Formnext 2020 – Why 3D printing isn't as efficient as the industry claims

Cecilia Gee, Analyst
December 16, 2020

Formnext, the leading event for 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, took place in November and covered the spectrum of emerging technologies, market forces, and geographical trends. From this selection, we at Lux focus on sustainability – this blog will investigate and evaluate 3D printing sustainability based on Formnext panels and presentations.

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Despite a small number of presentations, most companies focused on the creation of novel printable materials, process enhancements, the use of machine learning (ML) and generative design, or the combination of these technologies, while others focused on the "inherent" sustainability in 3D printing.

Creation of new materials

Multinationals, startups, and researchers alike have pursued this avenue by offering recycled or recyclable materials, bio-based materials, or CO2-derived materials.

  • French startup Yuyo uses recycled PET (rPET) to 3D print surfboards. While it previously used recycled plastic bottles as feedstock, the company now reduces hospital waste by using rPET from medical trays used for sterilizing surgical tools. It also uses basalt fibers and a bio-based resin (based on linseed oil) to complete its surfboards.
  • DSM is planning to launch rPET glass fiber pellets this year, claiming that the production of these pellets creates a third of the carbon emissions of those made with virgin material. DSM and Royal HaskoningDHV also partnered to use Arnite (PET, PBT, and blends) in a 3D-printed pedestrian footbridge. The companies claim the material is recyclable at its end of life (EOL) and noted that predictive maintenance would prolong the product lifetime. DSM also highlighted its ExoPaXX polyamide with 72% bio-based content, targeting automotive, water management, consumer goods, electronics, and food applications.

  • Covestro featured three pathways toward sustainable materials: the reuse of postindustrial waste and post-consumer waste, the inclusion of bio-based content, and the use of CO2-derived materials in its PC and TPU blends from both Addigy and Cardyon.


Process enhancements

  • DyeMansion developed a vapor polishing system for surface finishing that uses an eco-friendly solvent (approved by the EU for food packaging and claims to be used in many cosmetic products), avoiding the use of carcinogenic, mutagenic, and reprotoxic (CMR) solvents. The system is a closed loop with integrated recycling and can autonomously run 24/7.

  • Also looking at post-processing, Addiblast exhibited its STAR02 vacuum with a separator for powder collection. However, the level of innovation in this product is low, and it does little to improve the sustainability of the 3D printing process.

Artificial intelligence (AI)

  • For DSM and Royal HaskoningDHV's footbridge, the developers used generative design to guide prototyping and building, aiming to limit material waste through design optimization.

  • MSC Software showcased its MSC Apex Generative Design program, emphasizing lightweight designs with stress-oriented optimization and high-speed simulation that considers the specifics of real-world 3D printing constraints.

  • Baker Hughes presented its generative design capabilities for custom part modification, along with related services like digital inventorization and reverse engineering.

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"Inherent" sustainability

Companies argue that 3D printing has a sustainability case to make on its own: It enables less waste and lower material use through part consolidation or design optimization compared to parts that would otherwise be traditionally manufactured. However, "less waste" does not equate to a truly sustainable process, especially as technologies like powder bed fusion generate waste powders that are difficult to reuse because their properties are affected by the process heat. Recycled 3D-printed parts may also pose quality issues in their second life and run the risk of downgraded performance; there is a need for further studies and qualifications in this area.

While the above methods (the use of new materials, processes, and software to decrease carbon footprint) aim to make 3D printing more sustainable overall, other companies, such as the below, use misleading greenwashing assertions and claim that 3D printing in and of itself makes products more sustainable. Benefits common to all 3D printers do not differentiate companies on sustainability. 

  • While ExOne does use bio-derived furan and water-based geopolymer binders, its sustainability page emphasizes waste reduction and freedom of design – advantages common to all binder jet-type printers.

  • Despite Höganäs' strong sustainability strategy, it markets 3D printing as an efficient process offering improved part performance because it opens new manufacturing pathways, not because its powders offer a reduced carbon footprint.

  • Kurtz Ersa uses the tagline, "Global. Ahead. Sustainable. Shaping the future with 3D printing." Although the company does commit to responsible environment and energy use, its 3D printer, the Alpha 140, was designed to introduce additive manufacturing for small and medium-sized companies at an affordable cost but does not highlight any sustainability features.


#Lux Take

The fundamental link between process, materials, and application meanscompanies need to approach sustainability through systems-level design while accounting for printer and product life cycles. However, while the offerings presented at Formnext show initial promise, sustainability is still not a major innovation driver. For example, other pathways like recycling are slowly growing, and the performance of reprinted polymers is not well-understood. Looking at life cycle assessments, Jeremy Faludi and the Additive Manufacturer Green Trade Association (AMGTA) indicate that the energy used during printing (across all types of 3D printing) is the main pain point for sustainability. His research further states that the embodied impacts of the materials chosen and embodied impacts of making machines are the next two most crucial challenges. Additionally, the carbon footprint of 3D printing is greatly dependent on part geometry and complexity – application fit is critical, as 3D printing can be 10× to 20× worse than injection molding of plastic parts at scale but offers vast improvement for high-performance alloys in aerospace.

Lux already called sustainability out as a trend in this blog  and urged players across the value chain to be actively engaged and catch on quickly or risk being left behind; it also explored circular business models like resource recovery, sharing platforms, product use extension, and product as a service. Although sustainability has not been fundamental to the 3D printing value proposition, it will be an influencing factor long-term. Those interested should collaborate to bring together a strong complete ecosystem, focusing on key challenges like reducing energy use and material impacts and finding the correct process-to-product fit.

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