Wednesday, February 23, 2011

What Does 3D Printing Have To Do With Sustainability?

This week’s guest blog is by Scott Harmon, Z Corporation Vice President of Business Development.

Over the last several years there has been a global push to improve sustainability. Sustainability in general seems like a pretty complex topic. It seems to combine efficiency, environmentalism, renewable energy, recyclability, etc., etc. I think back to my days camping as a kid. The motto was ‘leave it better than you found it.’

Rapid prototyping in general makes strong contributions to corporate sustainability. Reducing waste represents one of the key objectives of most sustainability efforts. Smart companies are doing everything possible to reduce the amount of waste material generated throughout their supply chains. Improving quality, reducing packaging and miniaturization are all methods that companies use to reduce the waste they generate. Interestingly, architectural designers have created specific certifications to improve how architects approach challenges in sustainability.

Intelligent use of 3D printers to make prototypes and scale models reduces waste in many different ways. By pushing errors and changes earlier in the design cycle, prototypes and scale models reduce the waste streams caused by those errors. When you catch an error in the prototype, you cut less steel and waste less plastic. In architecture for example, the savings are even more dramatic because the scale is so large. When you use prototypes and models to create better designs, you reduce the number of final products that get thrown in the trash.

However, despite the positive contributions that rapid prototyping systems make to corporate sustainability efforts, there are enormous differences in the waste streams created by these processes. I have heard stories of companies whose RP systems generate more waste than printed part material, at enormous dollar costs. Support material, shaving uneven surfaces, dissolving chemicals, etc. contribute substantially to the total cost of prototyping. These systems generate significantly larger hidden costs as those waste streams get flushed down the drain.

Z Corporation obviously prides itself on having the most efficient 3D printers in the industry: no support structures, no cleaning material disposal, no disposable build platforms, no chemical waste water, recycles 100% of the build material. Less waste today, better world tomorrow.

Is your company is starting to think about a more sustainable design process?

See Al Dean's Develop3D blog: Z Corp's Recycling Smarts


  1. Interesting, but if you look at the embodied energy and embedded carbon footprint of Z-Corp parts they may not be as good as you think.

    When considering sustainability, you have to look at the whole cradle to the grave, not just the discrete process. I agree Z-Corp raw materials are amongst the most sustainable and the technology uses only a small amount of power, compared to other RP processes (thermal). The unused material is also reusable (assuming it does not absorb any moisture), so thumbs up all around.

    However, most users then go on to infiltrate parts with cyanacrylate or epoxy based infiltrants, often under vacuum and at elevated temperatures, to achieve robust parts. If you consider this post-processing (which you must if you are looking at life-cycle sustainability), then the carbon footprint changes significantly. These infiltrants have very similar embodied energies to SLA resins (embodied energy being the energy in the supply chain needed to make the raw material). Our research has shown that if you couple the embodied energy in the Z-Corp raw material, with the process energy and then the post process infiltration energy, the final part has a similar carbon footprint to SLS.

    Moreover, following infiltration Z-Corp parts can no longer be treated as benign waste, as they are no longer a simple ceramic. Nor are they a recyclable polymer.

  2. Phil, To your point, certainly all 3D manufacturers, Z Corp included, must continue to improve in the area of sustainability – no question about that. All 3D printing companies offer materials in some part of the process that might be considered less than earth friendly. However, I encourage all readers to do a comparison across companies. To date, Z Corp has clearly accomplished the most toward this important effort than any other 3D printing company and produces the least waste. Z Corp. uses no support structures, no cleaning material disposal, no disposable build platforms, no chemical waste water, and recycles 100% of the build material. However, one thing you didn’t mention is that we also offer a water cure option for infiltration – water and epsom salts, in place of cyanacrylate or epoxy-based infiltrants. I encourage you to perform your research using our water and epsom salt infiltration; I believe your results will be quite different. Sustainability is an important issue in our society across industries, not just 3D printing. As a Z Corp. employee, I am very proud to work for a company that has already done so much in this area and continues to focus on this very important topic.

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