3 Unexpected Ways Additive Manufacturing Can Drive a Circular Economy

19 January 2023
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In 2023, linear economies have the consumer market in a chokehold. 

Production, especially in commercial spaces, has swiftly become a constant process of addition and disposal, with new products entering the market just as quickly as they are being thrown away.

This noxious habit is only ramping up its damage, winding further means for concern into the climate crisis of our contemporary day. As the Centre for Environmental Law reveals, “by 2050, the [cumulative] greenhouse gas emissions from plastic could reach over 56 gigatons – 10-13 percent of the entire remaining carbon budget”; with plastics constituting only a fraction of manufactured output, the responsibility to drive change weighs heavily on the manufacturing sector’s shoulders. 

Yet, this is not to say that solutions are not available. In particular, additive manufacturing is shaping up to powerfully counteract this disturbing trend.

This functional aspect of the technology has acquired greater visibility over the past few years. The unique physical mechanisms of AM are most frequently gestured towards in this regard – as the name implies, products are assembled by continuously ‘adding’ material rather than subtracting it, meaning that only the essential amount of material required is used, dramatically reducing wastage. This comes in direct contrast to subtractive manufacturing, in which material is cut away from a source, leaving behind vast quantities of waste. 

Though certainly an excellent example of additive manufacturing’s value-add, it still has its complications. As a research paper from the Technical University of Denmark highlights, “pre-manufacturing, manufacturing and post-manufacturing stages should be considered […] in post-manufacturing, there is often a need to smoothen rough surface[s], which results in generating […] waste”, an operational aspect which is “being largely underestimated”. Furthermore, such processes raise numerous health concerns, dispensing fine particles into the air and putting operators at risk of respiratory injury. 

Despite this, it remains true that AM is significantly less wasteful as a manufacturing technology. As R&D in the AM sphere continues to accelerate, researchers across the world are working towards resolving these complications. For now, however, it is not sufficient to rely on this single benefit as the main case for additive manufacturing’s environmental profitability.

It need not be, either. Besides the ‘additive’ nature of its functionality, 3D printing offers an extensive and impactful host of properties lending it to the task of tackling the sector’s waste dilemma.

In this article, we unpack three additional ways in which AM is taking linear economies and taking them full circle. 

1) Recycled Materials


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[Image Credit: Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games]


Waste material may be a burden to our planet, but to additive manufacturing it is gold. 

With the rise of AM has come a revolution in attitudes towards recycling materials. Skirting the design-based and technical complications that other manufacturing technologies would face where recycled materials are concerned – using recycled materials in CNC machining is practically unheard of – the 3D printing industry has leapt to the task. 

Specifically, the uniquely ‘additive’ nature of AM welcomes a broader roster of manufacturable materials – whilst subtractive machines would likely have to undergo special adjustment to cater for the unpredictable variability of materials, the act of ‘adding’ to construct is much freer, simply a case of openly extruding or melding together. 

Manufacturers have certainly capitalised on the opportunity with exciting creativity. Milan-based startup Krill Design, for instance, are producing lamps composed of recycled Sicilian orange peels, making the product largely compostable. The final ‘lights-out’ moment for the ‘Ohmie’ lamp, as a result, does not mark the start of its long, rusting life on a rubbish heap, but instead its return to the soil, perhaps even to feed a new generation of orange trees. Krill Design is lighting the circular way towards a more sustainable future. 

Metaphorically cheering for humanity’s win against climate change, the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games were also innovative employers of 3D printing’s capabilities. In a collaboration between designer Asao Tokolo, consumer goods corporation Proctor & Gamble and the International Olympic Committee, recycled plastic was gathered from ocean cleanups and additively manufactured to produce 98 podiums. Through the innovative project, the ability to extract value and resonance from ‘waste’ materials was resonantly reinforced and broadcast to the world. 

Ironically, through 3D-printing’s influence, the concept of ‘waste’ is itself being discarded. Whatever the material, the livelihood of a material can always be restored. 


2) Repair and Refurbishment


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[Image Credit: Optomec]

Using recycled materials is not the only way that life can be restored to worn and torn products. Sometimes, it isn’t necessary to start from scratch.

In cases such as these, additive manufacturing is equally optimised to deliver high quality results and evade the burden of unnecessary waste. 

Illustrating this capability, a 2019 research paper for Processes journal notes that “the role of AM has expanded from the fabrication of parts to parts repair and restoration in remanufacturing”. In this way, the continuous strain towards ‘newness’, a central culprit of the dangerous waste cycle permeating the modern market, is being importantly resisted by additive manufacturing technologies. 

Whether it’s a chipped door handle, a snapped arm on a pair of glasses or a faulty part in a vintage car, additive manufacturing’s unparalleled design flexibility makes it easy to recreate flawed components, restoring items to their original performance standard. Alongside improvements in 3D scanning technology, making CAD model recreations increasingly accurate, the scope of AM’s restoration capacities is only continuing to grow. 

Unlike most products, Thomas Mair’s 3D printed ‘Kara’ coffee machine is explicitly designed with breakage in mind. The machine, printed from ABS plastic, is composed in such a way that each component can be removed, repaired and replaced with ease, chalking additional years beyond the average Nespresso machine’s lifespan.

Endeavouring to make the task of repair less daunting and more accessible, ‘Kara’ overturns the convention of machines “end[ing] up on the sidewalk—or in a landfill—when they break” (Fast Company)

Entering into an entirely different arena, 3D printing is also stepping forward in the global effort to restore the recently destroyed Notre-Dame. On the back of their development towards 3D printing stone, Rotterdam-based company Concr3de’s inkjet technique has been turned to as an innovative solution. Proposing to use the burnt materials of the iconic building, the project demonstrates the combined force of AM as a technology for joint recycling and restoration, printing life back into a historical masterpiece. 

On scales both big and small, additive manufacturing is overturning what it means for a product to be faulty, taking it from a damning death sentence to an opportunity for a creative solution to surface. 


3) Reduced Physical Inventory


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[Image Credit: Wilhelm Gunkel via. Unsplash]

Whilst recycling products and restoring outdated ones is well enabled through additive manufacturing, the technology’s benefits extend to pre production stages with equal impact. The processes involved in AM help to reduce waste and encourage more sustainable production habits from before the machine has even been turned on. 

It is custom for many traditional manufacturers to lean on keeping physical stock in warehouses, storing pre-made products to prepare for and accommodate fluctuating levels of demand.

However, warehouses bring with them a host of burdensome disadvantages, absorbing time, space and money. Continuously renewing stock and maintaining the space can be time-consuming, especially frustrating when it may have been employed towards more active purposes. Paying for the space itself, indeed, is an irksome necessity on its own. 

Additive manufacturing’s predominantly digital mechanisms, however, are providing a solution to this issue. With the debut of 3D printing has come the grand opening of the’ digital warehouse’.

Rather than storing physical copies of products, AM allows manufacturers to store a digital catalogue of CAD files, transferable between different production centres. With the speed and flexibility of AM technologies catering to fluctuating demand, parts can be produced as and when they are required, rather than gathering dust in an echoing room and, eventually, being discarded if no longer desired. 

Describing AMFG’s digital warehousing module, part of its end-to-end MES & workflow automation solution, All3DP’s article on ‘Top Digital Warehouse Platforms for Spare Part 3D Printing’ notes how the feature “enables your company to keep the production data in a single, validated system, ensuring that parts are produced according to their specifications each and every time”, thus making “distributed production economically viable”. 

Besides ensuring more reliable production, and smoothing out the logistics of manufacturing across multiple production centres, digital inventories render the purpose of physical warehouses void. Operations become much simpler, with parts constructed on a need-to-make basis, avoiding unnecessary material wastage. 

Additive manufacturing’s ability to move alongside variable demand rather than inefficiently attempting to prepare for it in advance could transform the conventions surrounding manufacturing workflows. 


Slashing Waste, Boosting Revenue


On the path towards achieving true economic circularity, it is imperative that all stages of a product’s life cycle are considered – pre production, production, and post production processes all have a part to play, meaning revision and adaptation must be considered across the board. 

Though it is becoming impossible to ignore the extreme harm that manufacturing’s wasteful inclinations are inflicting on our environment, it is not surprising that businesses are finding it difficult to break the habit. In the rapid turnover culture of the contemporary consumer market, sales are soaring and revenue only continues to stack higher. 

The solution to this global problem, however, need not instil sustainability at the expense of lost revenue. Additive manufacturing is presenting a unique opportunity for improvement in both arenas. 

Greater production speed, greater design flexibility, and greater adaptability to production circumstances invest AM with the ability to both save money and make money, all whilst providing the conditions for waste to diminish more and more. 



Enjoyed this? Check out our previous article, ‘How Many Aspects of Automotive Production can AM Cover?’


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