One of the things that drew me towards further exploring sustainability in manufacturing was my previous 15 years working on manufacturing magazines, websites, conferences, and exhibitions. Specifically, over 10 years covering additive manufacturing (AM) as a journalist, editor and conference manager.

The early years

AM, also known as 3D printing, is a set of often disparate technologies that dates back to the late 1980s (depending on your definition it can be much earlier, but commercially the ‘80s were the true beginning) and has had a rollercoaster existence since. For many years the tech was rudimentary and users were as much researchers and technicians as they were… whatever their real job was. It was a tool that became the work.

Fast forward into the 2000s and the technology had diversified and matured sufficiently to become truly useful in the prototyping space. Here, the early technologies allowed designers and engineers to create models — initially for fit and form and later for function — to speed up the design-to-manufacture process. ‘Rapid prototyping’ as it was then known became a cottage industry quietly revolutionising a small segment of the wider manufacturing space.

Prototyping to production

Today ‘rapid prototyping’ has evolved into additive manufacturing, a collection of technologies that spans a huge range of abilities, materials and costs. A cast of supporting and complementary technologies has grown up along alongside it, spanning part design to post-processing and beyond.

Our recent visit to the Formnext exhibition in Frankfurt, Germany, was the ideal place to get to grips with this fascinating if at times esoteric technology group. From desktop 3D printers aimed at children and education, to (almost) fully automated production systems designed for serial production of end-use parts, the show floor was awash with innovation. AM now has the capacity to impact on all phases of the product lifecycle.

Sustainable? Depends what you look at

The ‘inherent sustainability’ of AM has always been part of the pitch, especially in metals. Gone are the days of chipping away at a block of metal to reveal the part hidden within, with AM you only use the materials you need! Well, that’s the theory anyway. The practice is, of course, much more nuanced and complex.

Assessing the sustainability of any product or process is fraught with difficulty. By isolating the right part of the AM process chain you can prove or disprove just about anything. Only by pulling back and considering the broader ramifications can an accurate picture be created.

Often, the environmental and commercial case for AM only starts once a part is in use. Light-weighting of components through optimised design — designs ‘unmakable’ by other processes — is one of the key drivers. This is especially true in mobility applications. Here a few grams shaved off a part that might be in use for decades results in big savings (money or carbon) down the line.

Dive deeper

    There are many resources online that introduce AM technologies. This one, by Dr Jason Jones, is an ideal starting place for the newbie: and includes an overview of the seven technology groups that make up the AM ecosystem. These seven groups each contain (well, all except sheet lamination, a largely obsolete tech) multiple individual technologies from dozens of providers. 

    AM is one of the areas MANSUS will continue to cover, exploring the sustainability of this industry and the impacts it can have on wider manufacturing operations. Our first Sustainable Horizons series brings you updates from the show floor at Formnext 2023, with 6K Additive, EOS, Carbon, WAAM3D, Trumpf and 3DLAB explaining how sustainability drives their businesses and how they are helping their clients.

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