Exclusives : 3D Printing a Key to Sustainable Manufacturing for Industry 4.0

3D Printing a Key to Sustainable Manufacturing for Industry 4.0

Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing is positioned for greater things to come in Industry 4.0. By its very nature it leads to greater sustainability, especially compared to its subtractive sister.

“When you look at additive manufacturing, you build up a part from the ground up, a layer-by-layer process, which means you only use the material that you need,” said Fabian Alefeld, Senior Manager of Additive Minds Consulting, a part of leading 3D-printing company EOS.

The Environmental Benefits of 3D Printing

For example, regarding the 3D-printing process of Direct Metal Laser Solidification (DMLS), where lasers are used to fuse together metal powder, Alefeld relayed that 98% of the residue material can be re-used for the next part of the process. As a result, the amount of waste is minimised. In contrast, manufacturers can waste almost 25% of the materials they use in subtractive processes.

“On top of that, since you’re now able to create these complex structures, you can now use software tools and analytics tools to actually optimise the product design itself to only follow the stress lines of the part and therefore reduce the material that’s printed compared to the conventional part,” he continued. “So now the part is lighter, uses less material, and has still the same weight-to-stress and weight-to-strength ratio as the conventional part.”

Alefeld, who also hosts the Additive Snack Podcast on the subject, elaborated further. He said how “light-weighting” can help out in the aerospace industry, where lighter parts lead to lower energy consumption. He separately used “burners” or oil-fuel mixers as another example of how 3D printing can help optimise product design.

“Gas turbines can become more efficient, because we can inject the gas in a better way into the gas turbines. Another example is landfills that currently just burn the methane that’s created. It’s not being used for actual energy production. We can now use 3D-printed components and burners to burn that gas for energy production,” he said, noting that some companies can alternatively use additive manufacturing to turn waste into carbon-neutral gases like hydrogen.

Alefeld also mentioned distributed manufacturing as more of an indirect way in which 3D printing’s flexibility improves sustainability. He described a movement away from large-scale factories that produce parts en masse to more of an on-demand concept.

“We [can] have small 3D-printing farms all across the globe close to our customers and, if there’s customer demand, then we print the part on demand and hopefully, since we are closer to our customer, we can reduce the carbon footprint of transport. We can reduce waste because we’re not producing just for our warehouse, but we only produce when needed,” he said.

From Industry 4.0 to Industry 5.0

The asset flexibility is one key reason Alefeld said he sees additive manufacturing as a key component of Industry 4.0, even if, in his opinion, the fourth industrial revolution hasn’t arrived, apart from a few lighthouse factories.

“If I am a production manager and I have these connected machines, I can react very quickly to changing demands and to changing manufacturing environments just by pushing different parts into my 3D printer,” he said. “We are working on these Industry 4.0 environments. Partners of ours, large organisations such as the Siemens, the PTCs of the world, are partnering with us to make these concepts a reality; but also smaller start-ups such as Link3D, which is working on [Manufacturing execution systems; MES] developed for 3D printing to really enable and utilise the flexibility of this technology in Industry 4.0 environments.”

Meanwhile, 3D printing is a key component of “Industry 5.0” as well, according to Michael Rada. The President of International Business Center of Sustainable Development (IBCSD) LAB, Rada eventually coined the term for the industrial-upcycling-centric movement he started back in 2013. For the uninitiated, industrial upcycling is the transformation of waste into new materials of greater value in an industrial context.

“3D printing must be part [of Industry 5.0]. Imagine Industry 5.0 as an umbrella and under this umbrella, there are all the technologies which somehow contribute to the wasteless world,” Rada said, talking to 6GWorld™.

According to Rada, Industry 5.0 isn’t a fifth industrial revolution, but rather a trend taking shape right now towards more of a synergistic relationship between humans and machines. The ultimate goal is not just reducing waste, but preventing it altogether. He provided an example of a modular, reusable house.

“If you don’t like the house, you separate it and you use it again and that’s great. That’s exactly one of the points that we should implement in the system,” he said. “I’m drinking here from a plastic bottle. It sounds like I am crazy [because it’s plastic]. I know that if I drink it empty […] I fill it with water and, with this one filling, I cut the carbon footprint by half because I use it twice.”

The Next Era of Manufacturing

With that in mind, Rada said one issue with additive manufacturing is the majority of 3D prints cannot be re-used. However, Alefeld did mention MolyWorks as one example of a company that turns waste into new powder that can be printed again through the use of atomization technology. Overall, asked about Industry 5.0, Alefeld said he sees additive manufacturing as conceivably fitting in with the concept, as the movement starts to gain traction.

“When it comes to responsible and sustainable manufacturing, we believe that is one of the biggest impact factors of additive manufacturing,” he said. “We’re spending a lot of time and effort to push the industry and to push additive manufacturing, but also conventional manufacturing, to really use all of these building blocks that we have now to create a more sustainable supply and value chain.”

Alefeld was very open in his belief that additive manufacturing won’t substitute all conventional manufacturing technologies. However, in his mind, COVID-19 has proven supply chains aren’t agile enough, going back to the need for more flexibility.

“I strongly believe that [additive manufacturing is] one part of the chain in these environments that really can elevate the manufacturing industry into the next era, into a more sustainable manufacturing era, a more flexible sustainable manufacturing era,” he said.




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