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3D printing: unexpected ecological benefits for industrials

Mette Præst Knudsen
Professor of Innovation Management at Chair “Technology for Change” (IP Paris) and Head of Research for the Center for Integrative Innovation Management at University of Southern Denmark
Kristina Vaarst Andersen
Associate Professor in Integrative Innovation Management at the University of Southern Denmark
Thierry Rayna
Thierry Rayna
Researcher at the CNRS i³-CRG* laboratory and Professor at École Polytechnique (IP Paris)
Key takeaways
  • Danish companies are concerned about environmental sustainability, but do not usually think about improving the circular economy of their products.
  • 3D printing, originally intended for product development tasks, actually has unexpected benefits in terms of sustainability.
  • Firstly, the technology can improve companies' use of materials and reduce waste.
  • With 3D printing, companies can also go from idea to product much faster and with less CO2 emissions from logistics.
  • Finally, this technology can support companies' efforts to minimise their environmental impact through more circular economic paths.

Of all emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies, 3D Print­ing (or addi­tive man­u­fac­tur­ing) cer­tain­ly made the top list of those that were pre­dict­ed to “change the world”. Yet, near­ly 40 years after is con­cep­tion and 10 years after the 3D print­ing ‘hype’, it is hard to find sit­u­a­tions where 3D print­ing has had a rad­i­cal impact, aside from a few spe­cif­ic nich­es such as pros­thet­ics and the aero­space indus­try

Among the pre­dict­ed ben­e­fits of 3D print­ing was its pos­i­tive impact on sus­tain­abil­i­ty, by alleged­ly offer­ing “waste-free man­u­fac­tur­ing”. The promise was that only the quan­ti­ty of mate­r­i­al need­ed in pro­duc­tion are actu­al­ly used.  As such, prod­ucts can be man­u­fac­tured on demand with only raw mate­ri­als being trans­port­ed and so on. Yet, so far, this promise has also strug­gled to mate­ri­alise. How­ev­er, there may be light at the end of the tun­nel. As the study pre­sent­ed in this arti­cle indi­cates, where 3D print­ing has been imple­ment­ed in indus­try, it would seem to be a dri­ver of sus­tain­abil­i­ty – par­tic­u­lar as a cir­cu­lar econ­o­my enabler. 

Thier­ry Ray­na, Tech4Change Chair

Since 2018 the Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Den­mark has been map­ping the use of 3D print­ing by Dan­ish pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies, togeth­er with the Dan­ish Addi­tive Man­u­fac­tur­ing Hub. Their lat­est report from 20221 based on inter­views and sur­vey data from autumn 2021, analy­ses the link between use of 3D print­ing tech­nol­o­gy and the com­pa­nies’ approach to eco­log­i­cal sus­tain­abil­i­ty. All pro­duc­tion sites of firms in man­u­fac­tur­ing indus­tries with more than 10 employ­ees were invit­ed to participate. 

Over­all, Dan­ish com­pa­nies gen­er­al­ly report­ed that they have a strong focus on eco­log­i­cal sus­tain­abil­i­ty. As there are mul­ti­ple sources of sus­tain­abil­i­ty and ways to improve, a more detailed inves­ti­ga­tion high­lights some inter­est­ing trends. First, sus­tain­abil­i­ty has com­mon­ly been asso­ci­at­ed with reduc­tion of water and ener­gy use in indus­tri­al firms but there is also now a new, strong focus on reduc­ing mate­r­i­al waste dur­ing pro­duc­tion – with just over half the com­pa­nies focus­ing on opti­mis­ing the way they use their products. 

How­ev­er, much less atten­tion is paid to improv­ing cir­cu­lar econ­o­my of prod­ucts. As such, almost half the com­pa­nies report­ed no or very lit­tle focus on pro­long­ing the lifes­pan of their prod­ucts through offer­ing spare parts, repair ser­vices or “take-back” at end-of-life of prod­ucts. More­over, many of the com­pa­nies have no or very lit­tle focus on opti­mis­ing prod­uct lifes­pan and recy­cling in general. 

3D print­ers in industry 

3D print­ing is an addi­tive tech­nol­o­gy, using a 3D draw­ing (STL-file) as a tem­plate. Most process­es use liq­uid mate­r­i­al, pow­der or solids that are applied lay­er upon lay­er to pro­duce an object. Depend­ing on the equip­ment used, the object can be made from plas­tic, met­al, ceram­ics, com­pos­ite, or even con­crete (cur­rent­ly in devel­op­ment by com­pa­nies such as Cre­ate SDU2). Com­pa­nies typ­i­cal­ly use 3D print tech­nolo­gies in prod­uct devel­op­ment, to print objects that sup­port pro­duc­tion like tools, or to pro­duce parts of final prod­ucts or spare parts. Com­pa­nies’ access to and engage­ment in 3D print tech­nol­o­gy is in part deter­mined by their own­er­ship of the tech­nol­o­gy – com­pa­nies either own or lease print­ing equip­ment to have the equip­ment in-house, or they may out­source them.

Unexpected benefits 

In 2018 and 2019, a quar­ter of Dan­ish man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pa­nies report­ed using 3D print tech­nol­o­gy, while the share had increased to a third in 2021. The pri­ma­ry use of 3D print­ing is for prod­uct devel­op­ment tasks. It both facil­i­tates design of new prod­ucts and speeds up the process as the site can print and test pro­to­types as need­ed. Of those, 80% report that they either own or lease the equip­ment – mean­ing they have it phys­i­cal­ly present with­in the com­pa­ny. The remain­ing 20% com­pa­nies buy 3D print­ing ser­vices from sub­con­trac­tors. For exam­ple, Boe­ing now has a divi­sion for 3D print­ing indus­tri­al parts for both sub­marines, heli­copters, and planes. 

Com­pa­nies describe the tran­si­tion from a slow-mov­ing process of send­ing spec­i­fi­ca­tions to sub-con­trac­tors abroad and wait­ing sev­er­al weeks to receive back pro­to­types that often had to be repeat­ed sev­er­al times, to overnight print­ing. 3D print tech­nol­o­gy enables com­pa­nies to get from idea to prod­uct much faster with less CO2 emis­sions from logis­tics and less waste. 

Of those, a local com­pa­ny, Jyd­sk Emblem Fab­rik, pro­duces medals and emblems for a range of pri­vate and pub­lic cus­tomers includ­ing the Dan­ish army. The firm has worked strate­gi­cal­ly over the last 10 years to move its pro­duc­tion back to Den­mark to reduce costs and time usage of logis­tics, whilst allow­ing the com­pa­ny to ensure a high-qual­i­ty, flex­i­bil­i­ty and main­tain­ing a short time from design to pro­duc­tion. 3D print tech­nol­o­gy has enabled this process and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly facil­i­tate more envi­ron­men­tal­ly friend­ly pro­duc­tion and reduced CO2 emis­sions from logis­tics in both devel­op­ment and production. 

Oth­er exam­ples include Jør­gensen Engi­neer­ing, a robot­ics inte­gra­tor, that increas­ing­ly applies 3D print­ing. The firm first used 3D print in 2016, they now own FDM tech­nol­o­gy and use it to test and print pro­to­types, while they use sub­con­trac­tors for 3D print­ing of pro­duc­tion equipment.

Fig­ure 1: Moti­va­tions of com­pa­nies with respect to use of 3D print­ing for Sus­tain­abil­i­ty and Green Tran­si­tion (fig­ure 9.1 from3).

The com­pa­nies that use 3D print tech­nolo­gies report that they engage with ini­tia­tives to increase the sus­tain­abil­i­ty of their busi­ness more often than the com­pa­nies that do not use 3D print­ing. In par­tic­u­lar, they are more often focused on aspect per­tain­ing to the cir­cu­lar econ­o­my. This is sur­pris­ing, giv­en that most of the com­pa­nies declare that they did not orig­i­nal­ly adopt 3D print tech­nol­o­gy with the intent of increas­ing the sus­tain­abil­i­ty of their busi­ness. And, although there is a wide agree­ment that 3D print­ing is not a “sus­tain­able tech­nol­o­gy”, the com­pa­nies report unex­pect­ed sus­tain­abil­i­ty effects in rela­tion to their imple­men­ta­tion of the technology. 

Improved sustainability

There are mul­ti­ple rea­sons for this. First, 3D print­ing can improve com­pa­nies’ mate­r­i­al use and reduce waste. Waste reduc­tion can be achieved direct­ly through use of less mate­r­i­al as 3D print is a lay­er-by-lay­er addi­tive tech­nol­o­gy which enables com­plete­ly new designs using less mate­r­i­al. Sec­ond, 3D print­ing can reduce CO2 emis­sions relat­ed to logis­tics, as com­pa­nies avoid the time-con­sum­ing process relat­ed to man­u­fac­tur­ing pro­to­types and tools for pro­duc­tion in low-cost geo­gra­phies, or trans­port of spare part to remote loca­tions. Third, 3D print­ing can sup­port com­pa­nies’ endeav­our to min­imise their neg­a­tive impact on the envi­ron­ment through more cir­cu­lar eco­nom­ic paths where prod­uct life is expand­ed through ser­vices, spare parts, exten­sions and upgrades, and prod­ucts are designed for dis­as­sem­bly and recy­cling at end-of-life. In a not-too-dis­tant future many com­pa­nies hope to be able to reuse mate­ri­als from end-of-life prod­ucts to cre­ate new com­po­nents or even entire products. 

When we com­pare the moti­va­tions for why com­pa­nies adopt­ed 3D print­ing (i.e. what they expect­ed to gain) with the effects the com­pa­nies expe­ri­ence 3D print to have on their busi­ness, the com­pa­nies expe­ri­ence more sus­tain­abil­i­ty effects than they expect­ed pri­or to adopt­ing 3D print tech­nol­o­gy. Hav­ing iden­ti­fied the pos­si­ble sources, in the report we com­pared the orig­i­nal motives with the achieved effects to iden­ti­fy the poten­tial ben­e­fits to be cap­tured. What we noticed is that there may be greater effects with respect to sus­tain­abil­i­ty to be achieved than expect­ed. 10–15% of the com­pa­nies have pos­i­tive effects on sus­tain­abil­i­ty with respect to devel­op­ment of prod­uct that are eas­i­er to recy­cle, reduc­tion of num­ber of com­po­nents in the final prod­uct, and reduc­tion of mate­r­i­al con­sump­tion and waste. This can be seen as an open­ing for future increased use of the technology. 

Fig­ure 2: Com­par­i­son of the moti­va­tion and effect of using 3D print­ing tech­nol­o­gy (Report, Fig­ure 6.6).

The main find­ings of the study are that a grow­ing share of com­pa­nies that imple­ment 3D print­ing not only facil­i­tate and accel­er­ate inno­va­tion, but also man­age to devel­op more envi­ron­men­tal­ly sus­tain­able prod­ucts and forms of pro­duc­tion. Although 3D print­ing is not in itself a sus­tain­able tech­nol­o­gy, it can pro­mote sus­tain­able busi­ness process­es. Improved sus­tain­abil­i­ty can be both the result of a con­scious strat­e­gy and a side effect of the imple­men­ta­tion of new tech­nolo­gies such as 3D print­ing. It is impor­tant for com­pa­nies to be aware of how 3D print­ing can con­tribute to their envi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­i­ty, whether they are imple­ment­ing 3D print­ing to reduce costs, accel­er­ate inno­va­tion or to improve the sus­tain­abil­i­ty of their business.

James Bowers

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