Sustainability has been a major trending topic in AM recently. When manufacturing professionals from diversified industrial segments began to understand the possible uses of AM in mass production, using AM for sustainability was indicated as one of the key drivers for this transition. How real is this concept? Is it wishful thinking or greenwashing? Does it really hold promise for a more sustainable future?
3dpbm is somewhat biased on this topic. We see AM as the only truly sustainable manufacturing process and the only way to eventually make all production more energy-efficient. This is one of the reasons we became interested in this segment of industrial manufacturing (others being digitalization and state-of-the-art technological and scientific advancements).
We are also very much aware that this promise is far from being realized. AM today is still largely a stand-alone process complementing other processes. It is also energy-intensive in some cases, thus contributing to increased emissions. It uses materials such as non-recyclable petroleum-based plastics and rare earth metals that represent a primary cause of Earth’s pollution problems.
Saying that AM for sustainability is a given may not be accurate. But it may be accurate to say that AM is the only way for industrial production to eventually become sustainable. In order to assess the truthfulness of this statement, we are going to take a look at the recent uses of AM for sustainability in primary applications segments to understand how sustainable they really are.
Aerospace: 3D printing lighter planes
Total addressable market for AM in aerospace parts: $900 billion in 2020
Aviation traffic may have decreased dramatically during the COVID-19 crisis but before the pandemic, it was booming and growing at incredible rates. Aircraft engines burn through tons of fossil fuel and are responsible for a large chunk of global emissions. AM could play a role in curbing these emissions by significantly reducing the weight of future aircraft.
Airbus was among the first major aircraft manufacturers to explore the potential benefits of AM. Aviation history was made on 20 June 2014 when the first 3D printed metal part, a titanium bracket, took to the skies on board a commercial Airbus jetliner.
Weight reduction is the holy grail of aerospace engineering: every kilogram saved prevents 25 tons of CO2 emissions during the lifespan of an aircraft. Parts produced by AM weigh up to 55 percent less, while reducing raw material used by up to 90 percent. De-carbonization is the reason why the aerospace industry and Airbus led the charge in 3D printing.
The application of these new production paradigms doesn’t have to wait years until the next generation of aircraft is developed, a process that spans decades. Rather, the technology can be used to replace a part on an existing aircraft model with a lighter 3D printed version.
In September 2017, following thorough testing and EASA approval, the first titanium 3D printed part was installed on a serial production aircraft. This was the first step towards installing more complex 3D printed parts on Airbus production aircraft, which have to meet the highest safety and quality standards.
Since this milestone, dozens of additive manufacturing service providers and aerospace industry part suppliers have been manufacturing more and more weight-optimized aircraft parts for engine and cabin, in plastics and metals.
In 2019, GE made additive manufacturing history with the first flight of the Boeing 777X aircraft: each of the two GE9X powering the aircraft integrated more than 300 3D printed parts, including almost 250 low-pressure turbine blades (3D printed in titanium alumide on GE Arcam EBM systems), a fuel nozzle tip that precisely sprays a mixture of fuel and air into the combustion chamber and a heat exchanger. Another, the inducer, helps pull out dust, sand and other debris the engine has ingested and extends its life. This type of component was so difficult to manufacture that it had never been used inside a commercial GE jet engine before.
We will explore all these possibilities and newer opportunities in our newest AM Focus Aerospace eBook, out next week.
Automotive: powering EV-mobility
Lightweighting is also the main driver for the use of AM in terms of making automotive transportation more sustainable. This has become more of a factor in recent years with the introduction of EVs (including all types of e-mobility systems), as these can benefit significantly from lighter cars in terms of mileage.
AM could (and probably will) play an increasingly relevant role in the production of EV powertrain elements and, in some cases, even for direct production of large smart-EV parts, such as with Local Motors’ largely 3D printed Olli.
In 3dpbm’s recent AM Focus Automotive we took a closer look at the opportunities for AM in EV powertrain parts and batteries [LINK]
Printing EV powertrain parts
Total addressable market for AM in EV powertrain parts: $20 billion in 2020 and growing
In EV powertrains, the use of AM is particularly effective for part reduction, leading to weight reduction and performance improvements, which in turn will enable higher mileage. However, the actual penetration of AM in EVs—beyond applications shared with combustion engine powertrains, such as chassis, brakes and fluid flow applications—is highly dependent on the ability to implement AM in serial battery manufacturing. Some efforts in this area are already underway but are still a long way from becoming a consolidated business opportunity.
In electric motors, a particularly interesting focus for AM is on copper. German firm Additive Drives presented promising application cases. One involves 3D printed single coils used on a racing engine. In another project, copper 3D printed hairpin windings reduced the time required for the development and production of an electric traction motor prototype to one month. In addition, direct production of individual lots was achieved for Dresden-based pedelec manufacturer Binova: using 3D printed individual coils, Binova produced several different types of electric bikes with an unconventional electric motor design and no tool adjustments.
More recently, Porsche and SLM Solutions revealed a project centered on manufacturing a complete housing for an electric drive using 3D printing. The 3D printed E-Drive housing on the engine-gearbox unit was produced using the laser metal PBF process and passed all the quality and stress tests. In the future this may become a viable production method. Porsche also partnered with GKN on a case-hardened part that was greatly improved via metal laser PBF using a newly developed case hardening metal powder, 20MnCr5. In total, Porsche already identified 52,000 parts that would find success with AM.
Using the additive manufacturing process in combination with GKN’s newly developed powder leads to a significant optimization in weight, inertia and stiffness of the differential housing and ring gear while maintaining fidelity and handling all load requirements. This was possible by integrating functionalities and combining primarily conflictive components.
Printing EV batteries
Total addressable market for AM in EV batteries: $16 billion in 2020 and growing rapidly.
In EVs, the battery’s size and weight have large implications on vehicle performance. A larger and heavier battery takes away from cabin/storage space and worsens energy efficiency and fuel economy. The best way to optimize performance is therefore to maximize the battery’s energy density—that is, having a small, lightweight battery that stores as much electric energy as possible.
Batteries are tricky and particularly interesting for AM in (a rapidly approaching) future. Several efforts have been made to produce batteries using different 3D printing technologies, with both polymer and ceramic materials. Because batteries can take many different shapes and sizes for improved efficiency, AM could prove instrumental for testing—and eventually manufacturing—several new design iterations.
The batteries used in EVs today are basically rows of hundreds of small-sized batteries fastened together to increase capacity. With 3D printing, the individual cells don’t have to be manufactured and assembled: the module can be designed and printed in the desired overall shape. AM can also make a difference in the structure of the electrodes of a battery: porous electrodes increase energy density, and AM is ideally suited to build electrode materials into lattice shapes that have more exposed surface area for the chemical reactions to take place, resulting in a more efficient battery.
Swiss firm Blackstone Resources has recently achieved a series of important milestones for its proprietary 3D printing technology to print lithium-ion solid-state batteries. Blackstone’s 3D printing process claims to offer substantial advantages over conventional battery cell designs that use liquid electrolytes. These include significantly lower costs, a higher level of production flexibility—when it comes to the format of the cell—and a 20% increase in energy density. Moreover, by using this technology, the number of materials that do not store energy (such as copper and aluminum) could be reduced by up to 10%. The Swiss company also developed a workflow to mass-produce these batteries in 2021 in any shape or form using proprietary battery printing technology.
Sakuu Corporation (previously KeraCel Inc.) also just presented a new industrial-grade battery 3D printer, developed specifically for e-mobility batteries. The breakthrough technology is intended to unlock the mainstream adoption of electric and e-mobility vehicles by solving the previous issues of cost, performance, sustainability and range. Offering an industrial-scale ‘local’ battery production capability, Sakuu’s technology is likely to significantly expedite the use of EVs by providing increased manufacturer and consumer confidence.
Backed by leading Japanese automotive parts supplier to major OEMs, Musashi Seimitsu, Sakuu is set to enable fast and high-volume production of 3D printed solid-state batteries (SSBs), which have the same capacity as lithium-ion batteries yet are half the size and almost a third lighter. The company’s KeraCel branded SSBs will also use around 30 to 50 percent fewer materials—which can be sourced locally—to achieve the same energy levels as lithium-ion options, significantly reducing production costs. Moreover, Sakuu’s SSBs will offer improved safety and sustainability benefits.
A fundamental manufacturing breakthrough with Sakuu’s new solution is its multiple-AM technology. This blends powder bed and jetted material deposition and uses completely different multi-materials in a single-layer capability. The process combines ceramic and metal, as well as Sakuu’s proprietary support material, PoraLyte, which removes part overhang limitations and enables the easier and faster creation of devices with internal channels and cavities.
Furthermore, with only half the material requirement and a ‘powder to powder process’ that ensures easier recyclability of the ceramics and metals by conventional methods, KeraCel SSBs score much higher when it comes to sustainability. There is no requirement to extract graphite and the absence of polymer means no incineration or burial in a landfill.
Total addressable market for AM in consumer products: over $2 trillion in 2020
The main advantages that AM can offer to make consumer products more sustainable all relate to reducing consumers’ consumption. This can be achieved through mass customization, on-demand production and by using less material (possibly recycled or upcycled) through shape and process optimization.
In 3dpbm’s recent AM Focus Consumer Products we took a close look at the opportunities for AM in multiple consumer goods segments [LINK]
Footwear is one segment that has already started adopting AM for sustainability in the production of millions of parts—mainly midsoles—featuring optimized shapes and a more streamlined fully digital manufacturing process. The most evident is Adidas’ use of Carbon’s DLS technology for the mass production of its FUTURECRAFT series midsoles. In the future, AM could also play a part in streamlining footwear uppers production.
With one Adidas Model, the ADIDAS and Parley For The Oceans, the footwear company combined 3D printed midsoles with uppers made from plastic that was recycled from ocean waste. According to a study published by University of Georgia researchers in 2010, an estimated 8 million tons of plastic ends up in the oceans.
Adidas, in collaboration with Parley for the Oceans, unveiled this new concept converging the idea with their FUTURECRAFT 3D printed shoes with an eco-friendly upper-body formed of plastic materials from the ocean and the mid-sole 3D printed out of recycled polyester and gill nets.
However, while the production of optimized 3D printed midsoles has now been successfully scaled up into the millions, the use of highly degraded ocean plastic for footwear manufacturing is likely to remain mostly an inspirational concept. It may, however, be used by Adidas in various other ways, like store furniture or fixtures.
Mass customized, on-demand eyewear
Another example of how 3D printing can indirectly make consumer products more sustainable is found in the eyewear industry, where current mass manufacturing processes and practices implemented by the larger market players are extremely wasteful. The ability to produce and customize on-demand eyewear could eliminate a lot of this waste.
King Children, a Brooklyn-based startup, is one of many companies that have begun using 3D printing to produce custom eyewear on demand. This new approach not only uses more easily recyclable materials but can also dramatically reduce the number of eyewear frames produced and wasted.
The current business model implemented by the companies that dominate the market is based on the sale of thousands and even millions of eyewear products. However, because these models are seasonal and because the highly recognizable brands that are associated with them cannot allow a price reduction to go through all the unsold inventory, they are just disposed of. In addition, because they are generally made of acetate, which is impossible to recycle, they go straight to landfills.
King Children and many other 3D printed eyewear startups and more established companies, including Materialise, are leading this revolution in the eyewear market by making mass customized eyewear—or short runs of unique eyewear models—available on-demand, thus effectively eliminating all waste, even at the same price points as currently available branded eyewear.
Upcycled 3D printed products
There are many examples of 3D printed products made from upcycled plastics, cement and scrap metals. One particularly fascinating project, Forust, uses waste wood.
Forust is a new process that uses production binder jetting technology from Desktop Metal to sustainably produce functional end-use wood parts. The Forust process upcycles waste byproducts from wood manufacturing (cellulose dust) and the paper industry (lignin) and re-materializes functional wood parts through high-speed 3D printing, including digital grain throughout the part.
The process combines two waste streams from traditional wood production, sawdust and lignin, to sustainably produce isotropic, high-strength wood parts. Depending on the size of the parts, Forust can manufacture wood products using either the Shop System or a custom version of the new RAM 336 3D printer, which supports prints up to two cubic meters in volume at speeds in excess of 100 liters of parts per hour.
During the printing process, layers of specially treated sawdust are spread and selectively joined by a non-toxic and biodegradable binder. Digital grain is printed on every layer and parts can then be sanded, stained, polished, dyed, coated and refinished in the same manner as traditionally manufactured wood components. Unlike particleboard or laminate, Forust produces a wooden part with a digital grain that flows throughout the entire part that can be sanded and refinished. The software has the ability to digitally reproduce nearly any wood grain, including rosewood, ash, Zebrano, ebony and mahogany, among others. Parts will also support a variety of wood stains at launch, including natural, oak, ash, and walnut.
Additive manufacturing has found applications in different sectors of the power industry, both in building prototypes and in mainstream production, leading to process simplification and operational efficiency. AM can produce components with complex geometries, as well as consume fewer raw materials, produce less waste and have reduced energy consumption and decreased time-to-market.
Manufacturers look to AM for solutions with reduced costs and shorter time frames. In analyzing the power generation segment and the possible impact that additive manufacturing will have on it, several generalizations can be made about energy equipment.
AM for next-gen nuclear reactors
Total addressable market for AM in nuclear plants and equipment manufacturing: $40 billion in 2020
Possibly (and literally) the hottest segment for AM adoption is the civil nuclear industry. Ever since Siemens successfully installed a 3D printed part—a metallic 108 millimeter (mm) diameter impeller for a fire protection pump—in the Krško nuclear power plant in Slovenia, new AM applications for nuclear power plants have been in development. With the proper materials, including ceramics and refractory metals, AM can be used for obsolete parts which are no longer available, allowing old power plants to continue their operations. Recently, radiation shielding materials such as boron carbide have become available as powders for binder jetting on ExOne systems. And last year year, Swedish 3D printing companies Additive Composite and Add North 3D released a new boron carbide composite filament suitable for radiation shielding applications in the nuclear industry.
Advanced research on the use of 3D printed replacements and spare parts for nuclear reactors began officially in 2016, when the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced that GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH) had been selected to lead a $2 million additive manufacturing research project. The project is part of a more than $80 million investment in advanced nuclear technology.
GEH led the project by producing sample replacement parts for nuclear power plants. The samples were 3D printed in metal at the GE Power Advanced Manufacturing Works facility in Greenville, SC and then shipped to the Idaho National Laboratory (INL). Once irradiated in INL’s Advanced Test Reactor, the samples were tested and compared to an analysis of unirradiated material conducted by GEH. The results are now being used by GEH to support the deployment of 3D printed parts for fuels, services and new plant applications.
More recently, Westinghouse Electric Company installed a 3D printed component into a commercial nuclear reactor at Exelon’s Byron Unit 1 nuclear plant during its spring refueling outage. Westinghouse operates powder bed fusion metal AM, as well as hot wire laser welding (HWLW), as part of its advanced manufacturing offering. R&D is also ongoing to identify more applications of 3D printing in the nuclear industry.
One of these, supported by the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy, is the Transformational Challenge Reactor (TCR) Demonstration Program, an unprecedented approach to develop a 3D printed reactor core by 2023. As part of deploying a 3D printed nuclear reactor, the program will create a digital platform that will help in handing off the technology to industry for the rapid adoption of additively manufactured nuclear energy technology. Through the TCR program, ORNL is seeking a solution to a troubling trend: although nuclear power plants provide nearly 20% of U.S. electricity, more than half of U.S. reactors will be retired within 20 years, based on current license expiration dates.
Things are now moving really fast in the nuclear industry—a big change from the past—especially on the front of SMR (small modular reactors) which are scaled-down versions of nuclear reactors including both current and IV generation (fast neutron) technology. As recently as May 15th, the U.S. Department of Energy awarded grants to GE Research and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for research projects to develop digital twin technology for advanced nuclear reactors using artificial intelligence and advanced modeling controls. The research projects will use a digital twin of the company’s BWRX-300 small modular reactor as a reference design.
The AMswer is blowing in the wind
Total addressable market for AM in wind-power energy generation: $44 billion by 2030
Development and innovation through materials and manufacturing technologies are essential for the wind industry to prosper and to continue increasing its annual energy production. In the future, AM could enable the on-site manufacturing of turbine components designed for the unique needs of the resources of a particular location. Also, AM can help meet the demand and supply for wind turbine spare parts of discontinued models, for which the manufacturer will have limited quantities. Mold and pattern production is another key and proven area for 3D printing in wind energy generation equipment. Pattern production is one of the most time-consuming and labor-intensive processes in wind blade construction, and 3D printing can contribute to saving these critical resources.
In the wind industry, existing and R&D-level AM technologies have the potential to impact the prototyping and manufacturing costs of wind energy tooling and components. According to a study published by ORNL, AM application areas for wind components that can be economically feasible, given the ongoing pace of AM technological advancements, include direct-print blade molds that have been studied in greater depth to understand the potential and costs; functionalized nacelle covers; permanent magnets; and lightweight, high-efficiency heat exchangers.
In the future, AM technologies could enable on-site manufacturing of turbine parts as well as the production of site-optimized components that are tailored to the unique wind and grid resources of a given location. With the anticipated maturation of new technologies, such as Large Format Additive Manufacturing (LFAM), high-capacity Wide and High Additive Manufacturing (WHAM) and Large-Scale Metal AM machines, we may eventually see a shift toward directly printing a variety of wind turbine components.
A key potential benefit is that large wind blades would not have to be carried over long distances—in particular when it is impossible to transport them on highways. Instead, the 3D printer could be operated on-site and print the blades, thereby saving transportation costs. This would also cut down the manufacturing time of the mold by 35% and make it possible to combine different materials in different areas of the blade.
This means that not only could large-format polymer and metal additive manufacturing technologies be implemented but cement ones could as well. Purdue University engineers are developing a way to make wind turbine parts out of 3D printed concrete, a less expensive material that would also allow parts to float to a site from an onshore plant.
The researchers are working in collaboration with RCAM Technologies, a startup founded to develop concrete additive manufacturing for onshore and offshore wind energy technology, including wind turbine towers and anchors. By eliminating the need for molds, RCAM’s concrete additive manufacturing process could reduce the capital cost of an offshore substructure and tower compared to conventional methods by up to 80%, using low-cost regionally sourced concrete without expensive formwork, and increase production speed up to 20 times.
Cleaner fossil fuels
In the past, we’ve looked at how AM can make the oil and gas extraction process more sustainable. This may seem counterintuitive, but fossil fuels are going to continue to be part of the world’s energy mix for many decades, so we need to learn to work with them in the best way possible. AM can help.
Kueppers Solutions, a German company that specializes in redesigning energy-efficient products and optimizing current thermal process plants by replacing fossil fuels or reducing their emissions with more efficient technologies, works with GKN as a partner for its AM activities, which have recently focused on reducing NOx emissions from thermal power plants.
In a recent project involving several institutions, Kueppers worked to develop a new mixing unit for gas burners that can significantly reduce nitrogen oxide emissions. The innovative geometry of the mixing unit was of course manufactured using 3D printing to create a precisely dosed gas-air mixture that burns better.
Nitrogen oxides (NOx) are a family of poisonous, highly reactive gases that form when fuel is burned at high temperatures. Kueppers commissioned the first reference systems at the beginning of 2019 and aims to become a supplier, comparable to a manufacturer of injection systems in the automotive industry. In order to significantly reduce nitrogen oxide emissions, thousands of industrial burners have to be retrofitted.
In the area of industrial burners, certain dimensions and sizes have become established across manufacturers. Comparable to replacing a light bulb with an energy-saving lamp, many burners on existing systems could therefore be replaced without the entire system having to be renewed. Since thermal processing systems are used for 30 to 50 years, this option is particularly important.
Total addressable market for AM in constructions: $10.5 trillion
At the end of 2020, in 3dpbm’s AM Focus Construction, we took a close look at the opportunities for AM in the construction industry [LINK]
Besides offering a more sustainable process for building houses (by eliminating the need for formwork and using recycled cement mixtures), one of the most relevant use cases for 3D printing in construction was seen in the production of bases for giant wind turbines.
Danish company COBOD, which produces large 3D printers for robotic printing of buildings, entered a cooperation with GE and LafargeHolcim in 2019 to develop 3D printed concrete wind turbine towers. The partners 3D printed the first 10-meter tower base in 2019, followed by another in 2020. The success of this partnership inspired GE to address the Leaders Summit on Climate organized by the White House, presenting how its work could eventually lead to the creation of extra-tall towers and lower CO2 emissions.
Total addressable market for AM in plant-based food: $7 billion in 2020, growing rapidly
The production of meat, dairy and eggs puts far more strain on the environment than any other kind of food production. As a result of the increasing world population and a steadily decreasing amount of agricultural land, humanity needs to find viable solutions to satisfy its alimentary needs.
More than 66 billion chickens, turkeys, pigs, cows, sheep and ducks were killed and slaughtered yearly throughout the world in 2016. There is a discrepancy between science and awareness of animal welfare in society and the practice of industrialized livestock farming. Eating animals means that the food chain, starting with plants and ending with humans, is lengthened and with that we waste a lot of food that could be used to feed people.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that the demand for meat is going to increase by more than two-thirds in the next 40 years and that current production methods are not sustainable. In the near future, both meat and other staple foods are likely to become expensive luxury items, thanks to the increased demand for crops for meat production. That is unless we find a sustainable alternative.
Livestock contributes to global warming through unchecked releases of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The increase in demand will significantly increase levels of methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide and cause a loss of biodiversity.
The Future Food foundation believes that artificial—or bioficial—alimentary products will have to be cheaper than conventional meat, eggs or milk derived from animals. They will also be potentially healthier than animal products, with a number of additional benefits directly related to the possibility of tailoring a meal.
In recent years a multitude of increasingly well-funded startups have emerged offering vegetable-based or cellular agriculture-based meat and dairy products.
Fishing 3D prints
Revo Foods, an Austrian startup, has presented a method for 3D printing “salmon” made from a veggie protein. The company has been developing its plant-based seafood alternatives since last year in Vienna, with the aim of fully recreating the texture, structure, taste and nutritional profile of seafood, such as salmon and tuna, using 100% plant-based ingredients.
The company developed a new technology based on a food 3D printing process that precisely recreates the texture and appearance of seafood. In the 3D printing process, natural and healthy ingredients such as pea proteins, algae extracts and dietary fibers are combined for excellent nutritional value and taste. This gives Revo Food’s products a realistic look. In addition, the process was optimized to avoid food waste in the production process and retain more healthy vitamins and omega-3 oils.
With Revo Food’s products, consumers could find a healthy and more sustainable alternative compared to the products of industrial fishery and aquaculture. The first products that will hit the market are smoked salmon strips (The Smokey One) and salmon spreads (The Creamy One), while Revo continues to develop vegetarian salmon and tuna sashimi. These products became available in Austria at the end of 2020 and the company now plans to expand to more European markets.
Beefing it up with AM
Aleph Farms, a startup based in Tel Aviv, is one of several Israeli startups working on the production of edible meat that does not involve the slaughter of animals. Years ago it would have seemed impossible but now this innovation is within reach and promises to bring ethical and environmental benefits.
The Israeli startup has already distinguished itself for growing synthetic meat in space, specifically in the Russian segment of the International Space Station (ISS). American companies Meal Source Technologies and Finless Foods collaborated with Russia-based 3D Bioprinting Solutions on the experiment. To grow the meat, bovine cells were collected on Earth and taken to space. There, the 3D printer produced the meat in conditions never experienced before.
Aleph Farms is now serious about developing its technology as a viable method to feed the world’s ever-growing population. The goal is to make it possible to access high-quality meat using minimal resources, through a production that is totally biocompatible.
The company’s elaborate method consists of taking stem cells from a living animal and combining them with growth factors that duplicate a cow’s natural muscle regeneration process. Then, a bioink and a special 3D printer are used to rebuild the meat one layer at a time.
This article first appeared in 3dpbm’s AM Focus 2021 Sustainability eBook. Follow this year’s AM Focus 2021 Sustainability on 3D Printing Media Network and stay tuned for the 2022 edition, out in early August.