Enhancing Sustainability in Additive Manufacturing

22 February 2024
sustainability in additive manufacturing

Report by Danny Weller

In response to the growing emphasis on sustainability, manufacturers are actively pursuing innovative and environmentally friendly solutions to minimize their ecological footprint. Additive Manufacturing (AM) emerges as a key player in fostering sustainable practices to address this imperative. Notably, the AM industry experienced a remarkable 18% growth in the past year (Wohlers Associates, 2023), underscoring the urgency to explore eco-conscious applications of this technology.

To truly embrace sustainability, the shift toward a circular economy becomes crucial. This approach focuses on eradicating waste by promoting the continuous circulation of resources while balancing environmental, economic, and social considerations. This article delves into the current state of AM, highlighting its benefits and challenges within the framework of the circular economy. Furthermore, it presents strategic insights and opportunities to harness AM as a powerful and sustainable manufacturing technology. Explore the transformative potential of AM in aligning with environmentally responsible practices and contributing to a circular and sustainable future.

sustainability in additive manufacturing
Image: Gomi DS

Environmental Benefits of Additive Manufacturing


The sustainability in AM presents advantages that surpass conventional technologies in various aspects:

  • Material efficiency: Achieved through lower buy-to-fly ratios and the elimination of tooling, optimizing resource utilization.
  • Energy conservation: This occurs both in the manufacturing stage, thanks to reduced material sourcing and design optimization, and in the operational stage, enabling more efficient energy or fuel consumption during operation.
  • Reduced transport: The implementation of distributed manufacturing allows on-site production, minimizing the need for goods and materials movement.
  • Life extension: AM facilitates the creation of highly optimized or customized parts, offering the potential to extend product life. Additionally, it supports assembly component repair or replacement, contributing to waste reduction.
sustainability in additive manufacturing challenges
Image: Maria Teneva

Challenges to Increased Sustainability


While these benefits suggest AM offers greater sustainability, key challenges remain to fully understand its true impact. These include materials, energy consumption, data availability, and knowledge-related challenges to make the industry aware of their contribution to a circular economy.

Material Challenges

The extraction and processing of materials for AM currently pose environmental challenges, contributing to both degradation and greenhouse gas emissions. Although some polymers used in AM are sourced from natural origins, the majority of AM materials involve mining or are derived from oil-based sources. Compounding this, each AM technology comes with specific material requirements such as melt flow characteristics, viscosity, and thermal properties. This diversity impedes the development of standardized sustainable materials applicable across all processes, creating hurdles in material scalability.

The varied compositions of materials used in AM also present challenges in terms of recovery and recycling. The uniqueness of material compositions makes it difficult to integrate them into conventional waste streams, raising concerns about efficient recycling practices. Additionally, identifying these materials for recycling necessitates specialized equipment for composition analysis and defining recovery routes. These challenges underscore the need for innovative solutions and a more comprehensive approach to address the environmental impact of AM material extraction and processing.

Process Challenges

AM processes introduce distinct challenges, particularly in terms of energy usage and scalability. The energy-intensive aspects of heating, melting, and fusing materials, as well as post-processing tasks like support structure removal, surface finishing, and applying coatings, demand additional resources and time. Sustainability metrics become more elusive due to continuous changes in part geometry, complicating the capture and assessment of key indicators.

The variability in energy consumption further complicates the evaluation of sustainability metrics. Energy needs for a single part per build significantly differ from those for multiple parts, limiting the ability to calculate consumption on a component basis.

While AM excels in small-scale production and customization, scaling up for mass production presents persistent challenges. Achieving higher throughput in AM machines without compromising quality becomes imperative to position AM as a competitive alternative to traditional manufacturing in terms of efficiency, ultimately leading to significant energy reductions. Explore strategies to streamline AM processes and overcome these challenges for a more sustainable and scalable manufacturing future.

Knowledge Challenges

Exploring the environmental footprint of AM presents two key hurdles: the accessibility of data and its effective utilization to confirm the sustainability of Additive Manufacturing. While platforms such as Ansys’ Granta serve as valuable repositories for material information, the diverse nature of AM processes complicates the application of generic data for meaningful comparisons.

The dynamic characteristics of AM result in varied processing methods and end-use destinations for components, diminishing the consistency of available data. Coping with the substantial amount of data required for dependable product and machine lifecycle assessments remains an ongoing obstacle in accurately determining the environmental impact of AM.

sustainability in additive manufacturing
Image: Rafzin P

Next Steps for Designers


As a designer, you may perceive limited opportunities to increase sustainability in Additive Manufacturing. However, it’s essential to recognize design’s role as a driver in the circular economy. There are already established design strategies that promote a sustainable mindset. Here are key sustainable design strategies, ranked by their effectiveness in reducing environmental impact within the context of AM:

  1. Design for Life Extension:
  • Utilize topology optimization or generative design to create highly functional parts, extending their lifespan.
  • Leverage AM customization to enhance desirability and emotional connection, contributing to prolonged product life.
  1. Waste Source Reduction Design:
  • Implement lattice structures or topology optimization to minimize material usage while maintaining structural integrity.
  • Consider part consolidation to reduce both material consumption and assembly steps.
  1. Design for Material Substitution:
  • Evaluate the environmental benefits of different materials, prioritizing the substitution of high-density materials with low-density alternatives to enhance energy efficiency in transportation and operations.
  1. Modular Design:
  • Design components with varying lifespans, enabling the replacement of only defective parts rather than the entire component. This conserves energy and resources, with distributed manufacturing ensuring on-demand spare parts availability.
  1. Design for Reusability:
  • Standardize certain design aspects to facilitate future reuse in subsequent products.
  1. Design for Disassembly:
  • Plan for easy disassembly of the assembly into individual materials, ensuring efficient resource recovery at the end of the product’s life cycle.
  1. Design for Recycling:
  • Prioritize the use of recycled and recyclable materials whenever possible.
  • Implement ecolabeling practices, such as embossing material information or QR codes, to identify materials for easier recycling.
  • Consider incorporating biodegradable materials that can be composted.
  1. Design for Energy Recovery:
  • Avoid materials that emit toxic fumes, especially if incineration is the chosen disposal method.

By incorporating these sustainable design strategies, AM designers can significantly contribute to minimizing the environmental impact of additive manufacturing processes.

sustainability materials
Image: Getty Images

Materials of the Future


As technology advances, understanding how AM can bolster its sustainability becomes paramount. Exploring alternative materials—renewable, bio-based, recycled, and recyclable—emerges as a critical avenue for mitigating the environmental impact of AM. However, the challenge lies in finding sustainable materials that not only meet these criteria but also uphold functional requirements. To foster widespread adoption, it is imperative to expand the production and supply chains for sustainable materials, making them economically viable.

Despite the environmental potential, recycling AM waste faces obstacles such as inadequate waste infrastructure, insufficient incentives for material recovery, and challenges in material identification. Addressing these issues necessitates further research to establish effective waste management strategies and develop infrastructure for returning materials to recycled feedstock.

A notable deficiency in the current landscape is the absence of standardized labeling for AM parts. This absence complicates the identification and recycling of AM materials. While individual designers could address this challenge with labeling tools, a comprehensive solution requires legislative support for environmental labeling. Implementing labeling practices could simplify material identification, ensuring that specific material compositions or alloys are maintained throughout the recycling process. This prevents mixing with other grades, facilitating the recirculation of materials back into AM feedstock.

Tackling these material-related challenges in AM demands collaborative efforts among material scientists, AM technology developers, and industry stakeholders. By navigating these complexities, the future of AM can be shaped to align with sustainability goals and promote responsible material usage.

sustainability process
Image: Simon Kadula

Process Sustainability


A comprehensive comprehension of Additive Manufacturing’s (AM) sustainability requires diligent data collection and assessment. A key methodology in evaluating product or process sustainability is Life Cycle Analysis (LCA). Advocating for broader adoption of LCA in AM is essential for a holistic understanding.

To achieve this, there is a critical need for extensive and dependable data pertaining to the environmental impacts of AM materials and processes. This requirement extends beyond isolated case studies and research, aiming for a robust foundation that empowers the effective utilization of tools like LCA across the AM landscape. By fostering widespread access to reliable data, the AM industry can elevate its sustainability practices and make informed decisions for a more environmentally conscious future.

sustainability in additive manufacturing- knowledge


Increased Knowledge of Sustainability Best Practices


To enhance sustainability in Additive Manufacturing in the future, every facet of the design-for-AM workflow and its associated supply chain must align with the principles of the circular economy. Given the relatively nascent nature of sustainability in this domain, it is unrealistic to assume that all stakeholders possess prior experience. Consequently, there is a pressing need to provide targeted education that aligns with specific roles within the AM ecosystem.

Offering accessible training and guidance is crucial to shaping the industry’s mindset and facilitating a seamless transition toward a circular economy. By equipping individuals at every stage of the design and supply chain process with the necessary knowledge, the AM sector can collectively contribute to sustainable practices, fostering a more environmentally conscious and responsible future.

sustainability in additive manufacturing
Image: Vlad Hllitanu



As a disruptive technology, Additive Manufacturing holds the promise to spearhead sustainable manufacturing practices, offering advantages like enhanced material efficiency, energy conservation, reduced transportation, and extended product life. However, certain challenges impede its current potential, including the environmental impact of materials, variable energy consumption, and the absence of standardized data for sustainability assessment.

While designers can immediately contribute by adopting sustainable design strategies for their components, the future sustainability of AM hinges on key initiatives. This includes the development of renewable and recyclable materials, the establishment of effective recycling practices, and the promotion of education and training in the circular economy within the industry. By addressing these challenges head-on, the AM sector can pave the way for a more environmentally friendly and sustainable future in manufacturing.

About AMFG

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