3D printing and the race for sustainable business

In the run up to the COP22 climate change conference in Marrakesh, Damian Hennessey, commercial director of Proto Labs, discusses how 3D printing can help all areas of industry achieve sustainability goals.

3D printing and the race for sustainable business

Climate action has certainly made the headlines in recent months - the COP21 conference held in Paris last year placed much-needed pressure on global governments, investors and businesses across all areas of industry to help combat the negative effects of greenhouse gas emissions.

Many businesses have risen to the challenge. Retail giant IKEA, for example, recently pledged to invest €600m into renewable energy projects. Helping to tackle climate change and embed best practice around sustainability into the business needn’t be a costly burdensome investment, though.

Many business leaders may be unware that digital manufacturing technology such as 3D printing can act as a catalyst to help them achieve sustainability goals.

3D printing’s green credentials

3D printing has hit the headlines as a mainstream, largely consumer-focused phenomenon but can, in fact, help support the development of intricate parts for businesses across all sectors of industry.

Used effectively, 3D printing on demand can lessen the need to maintain physical inventories of products and parts, thereby gradually shortening and simplifying the global supply chain, and freeing up money and resources. Manufacturing with 3D printers is intrinsically less wasteful and more sustainable - even the most complex parts can be made using only the essential amount of material, and offers businesses the flexibility to build more complex prototypes, using different product mixes at all stages of development.

Driving the industry forward

Businesses in the automotive and aeronautical industries serve as good illustrations of the positive, sustainable impact of 3D printing and other advanced manufacturing techniques.

Automotive manufacturers are constantly under the spotlight when it comes to improving lowering emissions, especially in light of the strict limits on carbon dioxide output that the EU is set to impose over the next decade. One of the most effective ways of increasing a vehicle’s efficiency is to reduce its weight but, rather than attempting to carry this out in one go, a more practical solution would be to break the process down into a series of small steps. 

Even shaving just fractions of an ounce from a vehicle’s weight can set automotive manufacturers on the right path to meeting these strict EU regulations. For manufacturers to do this, however, while still meeting the necessary cost and function requirements, requires them to be able to explore new designs and alternative materials.  Doing so can be made significantly more manageable by employing a process of rapid prototyping.

Indeed, the range of advanced manufacturing technologies such as 3D printing now available to engineers and designers means they are able to embrace opportunities for parallel-path and iterative testing that may have been previously unavailable to them. By enabling them to design and produce ever lighter and more energy efficient vehicles, these technologies will help automotive manufacturers to better meet the environmental demands of regulators and their customers.

Flying the flag for energy efficiency

UK airline manufacturers are seeking new ways to reduce weight and emissions, and increase cargo capacity as part of a bid to become more energy efficient, improve passenger experience, and reduce costs.

As with the automotive industry, advances in digital manufacturing technology are already delivering tangible benefits, reducing material and labour costs, and allowing manufacturers to test small components used in constructing engines and landing gear.

With aircraft and their component parts becoming ever smaller, lightweight and more efficient, so the geometry of these parts is becoming ever more complex. It’s here that 3D printing is especially beneficial, particularly when printing multiple components at the same time, and when the design of those components is intricate and demands great dimensional tolerances.

According to a recent report by Airbus, the global demand for aircraft and, therefore, for their constituent components, is set to grow significantly over the coming decades, with a 106 per cent increase in demand for passenger planes alone by 2034. Given this predicted growth, it’s important for manufacturers to give serious thought to their current process and to embrace those technologies, such as 3D printing, that will allow them to meet expectations for greater efficiency.

An increasingly important consideration

A recent survey found that 75 per cent of senior executives from investment firms around the globe agreed that sustainability and environmental performance was an increasingly important consideration for investors. And with nearly 200 countries signing up to the Paris Agreement at last year’s COP21 climate change summit, it’s clear that businesses must take action now to address this issue.

As the automotive and aeronautical industries are demonstrating, advances in digital manufacturing technology, such as 3D printing, have an important role to play in achieving this. 

Damian Hennessey is commercial director of injection moulding service and CNC machining service Proto Labs.

Damian Hennessey

Topics: Waste & resource management
Tags: 3D printing | Energy Efficiency | gas | greenhouse gas emissions | investors | manufacturing | retail | supply chain | sustainable business | technology | The Paris Agreement
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