It has been 35 years since the first instance of what we now think of as additive manufacturing (AM), or 3D printing. Lauded for its rapid production speed and minimal waste, the process is becoming a staple of product prototyping. However, there is still room to improve the sustainability of this process, as Ben Smye, head of growth Matmatch, explains.
The rapid rate of production facilitated by AM is rivalled only by the rapid uptake that the technology itself has seen. Although the first form of 3D printing, stereolithography, was invented in 1984, it’s only been since the mid-2000s that the technology has become widely popularised, with Google Trends data indicating that the term’s popularity really took off around 2012.
Today, the barrier for entry to 3D printing is relatively low. 3D printing technology is now a viable option for boutique businesses and consumers alike, while AM is used for producing everything from components in electronics to vehicle parts and even medical implants and functioning human organs.
AM’s remarkable versatility is due to the wide range of filaments that can be used. Although polymer products are among the most popular, materials from ceramic silicon carbide to stainless steel can also be used to produce parts, both for production and prototyping.
It’s the latter of these that is often most interesting to design engineers. With traditional subtractive manufacturing processes, physical prototyping required an excess of material and ample time. With 3D printing, prototypes can be completed quicker and by using only the right amount of material, making it a better use of resources.
However, this doesn’t mean that 3D printed rapid prototyping is waste free. At the end of the prototyping stage, the final prototype — as well as all unsuccessful prototypes — need to be disposed of. For metal powders, recycling is straightforward, but it becomes more challenging with plastic filaments — something that introduces the same waste issues as traditional plastics.
One of the original concerns in the early years of 3D printing, particularly in relation to plastics, was that of the material’s mechanical properties in comparison to traditional materials. Initially, many 3D printed plastics were perceived to be of lower mechanical quality than traditional plastics, and would therefore be unsuitable for certain applications, particularly in areas like automotive and aerospace.
Although development of printable polymers in recent years has gone some way to dispelling this myth, similar concerns have typically been levelled at biodegradable plastics and biopolymers. So, it’s understandable that some might be cautious of the quality of printable bioplastics.
However, this doesn’t need to be the case. Both printable materials and bioplastic technology has developed significantly since their respective inceptions, and today we have materials like Extrudr’s GreenTEC Pro biodegradable biopolymer filaments. These filaments are stable, resistant to impact and temperature-resistant up to 160 degrees Celsius, while also being completely biodegradable and FDA approved for use in food applications.
Crucially, Extrudr’s GreenTEC filaments are easier to process than some similar strength polymers, making them easier to use in the printing process. Collectively, these features allow design engineers to get the benefits of 3D printing — the speed of production with a good quality output — without worrying about the sustainability of their project, even on high-performance and industrial applications.
AM and 3D printing are rapidly developing technologies that are reshaping what we conventionally think of as possible in design and fabrication. By choosing the right materials, design engineers can ensure their products make the most of this technology in a sustainable, clean way.