By Clare Scott
“Sustainability” is an oft-repeated buzzword in many industries, including additive manufacturing, but what does it really mean? How can a manufacturing company be truly sustainable? In the most recent installment of Nexa3D’s 3D Printing Leadership Forum, “Sustainability in 3D Printing: The Time is Now,” CEO Avi Reichental and Senior Director of Strategic Communications and Ecosystems Sarah Goehrke discussed these and other questions relating to this increasingly relevant topic.
“There are too many current industry initiatives that appear to target a more sustainable approach to production that are really just kind of ‘feel-good’ or, dare we say, greenwashing,” Sarah said to begin the conversation. “How do we overcome this next speed bump in industry growth and really actualize the promises of additive manufacturing?”
“Greenwashing” is another buzzword, but a negative one – perhaps the flip side of sustainability. It may not be a term that you can find in the dictionary, but it’s an important one nonetheless, and one that companies tend to furiously shy away from association. The word can be loosely defined, according to Sarah, as being opportunistic and making big sustainability claims without any intention of following through with them. Many companies “follow the money” – and, for better or worse, the money is in sustainability right now. Investors and customers want to put their money in companies that make sustainability a priority, so green claims are everywhere.
“How do we make sure that when we start talking about it, the insides match the outsides?” asked Avi.
The outsides, according to Avi, frequently include general claims about the sustainability of additive manufacturing. Those claims tend to highlight less material waste and a lower carbon footprint, as well as the benefits of on-demand and localized manufacturing. But how do we get beyond the buzzwords?
Companies need to be truly intentional about their sustainable initiatives and put actual data and metrics behind them.
One way Nexa3D works intentionally is by applying circular design principles to its products, and following those principles up with validation and confirmation via metrics, measurements, and KPIs. Circular design involves creating a product that has a beginning but no single end of life, because it can be recycled or upcycled. An example of such a product is Nexa3D’s upcoming desktop 3D printer, the XiP.
“Early on when we assembled a team to start thinking about what the XiP means to us, we made some unconventional choices,” said Avi. “For example, we decided to design and fabricate the enclosure from aluminum billet. We did it for many functional reasons, but substantially, the main influencer here was that aluminum is the most recycled material in the world. 97 percent of aluminum is recycled.”
Nexa3D is also working on a way to reclaim excess resin that is removed in the process between finishing a print and washing it, as well as a way to reuse cleaning fluids from the post-processing stage. This reclaimer, as it is currently being called, will eventually be available to everyone.
Reducing supports necessary in resin builds and other design adaptations are among other evolving areas of best practice with sustainability as a target.
In a previous 3D Printing Leadership Forum, Avi and Sarah talked about the importance of collaboration and openness in the additive manufacturing industry – a principle that Nexa3D holds in high regard, and one that was returned to in this conversation. Last year, Nexa3D joined the Additive Manufacturers’ Green Trade Association (AMGTA), an organization that now comprises more than 40 members from around the world. These members can now work together to crowdsource ideas such as resin reclamation, for example, and to develop tools like emission calculators to get a better idea of environmental impact per part.
An undervalued key to a sustainable industry is finding ways to measure impact, which will do a great deal to combat greenwashing and truly hold companies accountable for the claims they make.
Partnerships are the way forward, said Avi, to creating a truly sustainable industry – each sustainable action may be just a grain of sand, but enough grains of sand put together can form a beach.