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Additive manufacturing accelerates green transformation in industry

Source:Thorsten Bell     Date:2023-02-08
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In 2020, the European Commission launched the "Action Plan for the Circular Economy". It includes several policy initiatives at once that aim to increase the level of sustainability in all industrial sectors. These sectors now have the challenge and the goal of reducing their carbon footprint and improving the sustainability of their processes and value chains. This requires a gradual shift to new processes and technologies that minimize environmental impact and conserve energy and natural resources as much as possible. The use of such key technologies can also help develop new, more sustainable products.

One of these key technologies is Additive Manufacturing (AM). Additive manufacturing offers a whole range of benefits in terms of more cost- and resource-efficient production resulting from new opportunities for design, manufacturing and business models. Of course, additive manufacturing also offers room to improve its own carbon footprint. For example, energy consumption in the materials production phase, such as powder production and AM product manufacturing, is relatively high. However, this can be offset by savings in the use of the end products, so the bottom line is that industrial 3D printing offers advantages in terms of sustainability.

To highlight the potential of AM, the European Association of Machine Tool Industries and Related Manufacturing Technologies (Cecimo) has now compiled a brochurewith case studies from across Europe. According to Stewart Lane, chairman of Cecimo's AM committee, "Additive manufacturing can help speed up industry’s green transition. CECIMO will continue to champion the application of additive manufacturing with policymakers, ensuing that this technology plays a role in the European Green Deal."

According to Filip Geerts, Director General of CECIMO, “The ambition to create a brochure focused on additive manufacturing arose from the opportunity to support the European targets set in the Circular Economy action plan. In that respect, the brochure provides a list of case studies in additive manufacturing technologies that could help companies in different industrial sectors to improve their product sustainability.”

Metal powder from scrap and AM waste

In the first example, the company F3nice, whose headquarters are in Norway, produces metal powders for additive manufacturing that are obtained from 100 percent recycled material. For this purpose, metal waste from the oil and gas industry (scrap metal), but also from the AM value chain itself (used powder, failed prints, etc.), is collected and reprocessed into powder. These metal powders find their way into AM raw material for binder jetting, powder bed fusion (PBF) and direct energy deposition (DED) applications. The use of the powders has been tested on various systems by independent experts to ensure the quality of the final products.

With the help of the Department of Environmental Engineering at Politecnico di Milano, a cradle-to-grave life cycle assessment was carried out to evaluate the CO2 savings in this area of the circular economy compared to the standard linear economy. Supported by the result, F3nice argues that economic incentives are an important step to make AM a real enabler of the circular economy. According to the report, a legal framework is also needed to certify true circular economy applications and prevent greenwashing practices.

Waste reduction by 95 percent

Italy-based 3D4MEC, a spin-off of the University of Genoa, is doing the math to produce a 3D-printed joint system that consists of just a few components: It takes about 44 hours to produce the innovative joint on its in-house 3D4STEEL printer. Production with AM results in a component with a total volume of 180 cm3 (1.8 kg) with a small amount of waste (about 110 g), which is less than 8 percent of the component material. If the component had been produced by a milling process, this would have resulted in a waste volume of about 35 kg. Production using additive manufacturing thus enables the manufacture of new complex geometries in conjunction with a 95 percent reduction in the amount of waste compared to conventional technologies.

The powder bed process uses powders with a particle size between 25 and 70 micrometers. The production process is generally associated with a waste of a few percent. It occurs in the contour of the object when it comes into contact with the laser and the powder melts. The printer for the production of the cardan joint has a cube-shaped workspace of edge length 110 mm. The 3D4STEEL printers also allow continuous recycling of the powder even during the printing process. Therefore, only a minimal volume of powder is used here that is required for the process, which also reduces the operator's interaction with the powder and its distribution in the environment. In the example, the system was loaded with 30 kg of metal powder for production in job 1 and then in jobs 2 and 3. At the end of the production of the three print jobs, 27 kg of powder was still available for the next production, which means that around 98 percent of the powder was not converted into the respective end product.

Production with 30 times less raw materials

In the last example cited here, a team from the United Kingdom consisting of Thales Alenia Space, WAAM3D, Glenalmond Technologies, and Cranfield University successfully produced the first full-scale prototype of a titanium pressure vessel for future space exploration. The vessel is about 1 m high, weighs 8.5 kg, and is made of the titanium alloy Ti-6Al-4V. It was manufactured using the WAAM (Wire and Arc Additive Manufacturing) process, which enables high deposition rates and is characterized by rapid manufacturing. This has enabled lead times to be shortened and 30 times fewer raw materials to be used than with conventional processes. The WAAM process can thus save more than 200 kg of Ti-6Al-4V for each item.

The WAAM3D company is seeking research funding to develop methods that enable the production of premium AM materials with heavy use of recycled materials. From the company's point of view, this is essential to make AM solutions a real enabler of the circular economy.

Further case studies supporting the circular economy can be found in the Cecimo brochure. In addition to the case studies, it also contains information on the national associations in which AM companies are organized throughout Europe.

For more information, interested parties can also refer to the documentation of the webinar " Enabling the Circular Economy with Additive Manufacturing", which Cecimo recently organized: https://www.cecimo.eu/enabling...

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