The contribution of Additive Manufacturing to Sustainability: conclusions

Part III: Conclusions (third of three articles), written with Greta D’Angelo, PhD

[Introduction and summary of PART I & II]

In the previous two parts of this series of articles, we have discussed Sustainability benefits in Additive Manufacturing (AM), more commonly known as 3D printing, given by the product itself, starting from a different design of it, and the peculiar production process of AM. Then we have dealt with the benefits of the make-to-order component manufacturing model that AM fosters and the impact that the technology will have on logistics and the whole supply chain. Finally we have discussed the necessity of rethinking the business models. In this short final article we will draw some conclusions from all the discussed points and if a lively debate shall start from here among colleagues and professionals with an interest in the future of Sustainability and Industry 4.0 we will feel authorized to call our mission accomplished.


From reflection on all the points dealt with in the two previous articles, it seems that, in terms of Sustainability, AM offers multiple advantages over conventional subtractive manufacturing techniques. Few hints suggest that AM can help to a large extent, for instance by making production more energy and material efficient, effective, environmentally friendly, customer oriented, offering new jobs and business opportunities, democratizing some parts of economy and industry. The answers are not all there, though, and a lot has still to be learned and assessed in this field through more extensive research and consideration of the whole value chain and life-cycle of products. There are also still some major barriers and challenges for a distributed deployment of AM in the supply chains like, for example, the acquisition price of AM systems, personnel intensiveness and the slow production rates of AM processes. Furthermore, AM as a technology needs to be contextualized and it should not be seen as an isolated case of technological advancement in manufacturing, but rather as one piece of a larger puzzle. In this regard two aspects should be considered. The first is that AM will not completely replace more conventional manufacturing technologies, but rather co-exist with them. The second is that AM is one of the macro-trends of Industry 4.0 and in order to deliver its best performances it shall work in close relation to other technologies, such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality, big data, robotics and machine learning, just to mention a few. Therefore the new business models, shall also account for this integration to happen.

Some considerations now about the social benefits that a technology like AM will bring. We can underline once more the customer experience, which can also include the fact that some products will in the future be available in contexts where they were not, before this technology emerged. This can be first because of affordability, that the possibility of making strictly personalized items at competitive costs will certainly improve, e.g. prosthetics, dental and surgical implants. Second, the possibility of producing complex items in remote locations without the need for large investment and big machinery, can again allow customers who could never dream of getting some technology to benefit from them, e.g. producing components for small renewable energy plants, like water stream turbines for village use or small scale wind-power devices. Finally, like many disruptive technology and business model innovations, AM will bring about the possibility to generate jobs and business opportunities.

But is all the above enough to consider AM as the panacea of sustainable manufacturing? To answer this question we have to consider that the new frontier that Sustainability has to achieve, to be definitely free of the relics of greenwashing, is the fully embedded status and Total Matter Productivity. Thus, the big question is whether or not AM can help achieve such goal.

Our feeling is that there are opportunities provided some conditions. One is that research has to develop thorough innovation and come up with materials that come from renewable sources as much as possible, can be recycled at the end of life of the product and whose unused parts, e.g. powders, can easily re-enter the production cycle. Bio-based materials, like polymers or resins, are today at a stage of fast evolution and can open windows of opportunity in this aspect. Design and engineering also have to help in making AM more and more efficient in the use of material and products easy to recycle. By-products or elements used in the AM process, e.g. gases, must also be non-toxic and technologies have to be developed in order to re-capture and re-use them. An accurate balance of the energy implied in AM production has to be calculated to make sure that this technology is used when it is the more efficient and that it does not become the new energy-guzzler around.

Indeed, the Circular Economy, Closed Loop, Total Matter Productivity business model has to come into play and be the point of reference for AM as well as for all of manufacturing in the 4.0 Era. If this is the vision that will drive the development of the industry in the following decade, we have no doubt that we will come out with appropriate models that take into account all the relevant factors and maximize the Sustainability of manufacturing.


Greta D’Angelo is an industrial designer converted to the discipline of manufacturing engineering. She has a PhD in Additive Manufacturing from the Technology University of Denmark and has collaborated with numerous designers and universities, among which MIT and ETH Zürich. Greta is now a consultant in the area of Digitalization and Additive Manufacturing for the development of sustainable business models. 


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