Circular economy and 3D printing

Circular economy & 3D printing

Two concepts have revolutionized the world and, above all, the industry: circular economy and 3D printing.

Since the early 1950s, the production and consumption model has been based on a linear economy, in which it is produced, consumed, and rejected. This model focuses on the use of «disposable» materials that significantly reduce production costs and facilitate consumption, but it has never been considered that the planet has finite resources and that every plastic element that is thrown away takes hundreds of years to decompose.

On the one hand, the circular economy is a concept interrelated to sustainability, and its objective is the fundamental 3 Rs: to reuse, reduce and recycle existing materials and products as often as possible to create added value and extend the product lifecycle.

The circular economy cycle. Source: Bee Smart City

This concept can be very closely related to 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, as it has great potential to reduce both materials and energy, being the reduction of materials one of its main advantages. One of the main characteristics of additive manufacturing is that a lot of products can be created with a lighter structure and different pieces can be designed in only one without assembling. Furthermore, only what is necessary is printed, so 3D printing enables “zero waste” production from the beginning.

On the other hand, taking as an example one of the many materials that can be used for 3D printing such as plastic, alternative materials to it can be used. PLA (Polylactic Acid) is a sustainable and biodegradable material extracted from corn starch that can replace plastic. In addition, considering the most important «R» of circular economy, reuse, is also a fundamental factor to think about product design and make longer-lasting products. This is one of the key elements when 3D printing and it should be considered being able to give it a second life to the product.

PLA. Source: 3D Natives.

A key step in the transition to a circular economy for additive manufacturing is the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). What LCA does is measure the environmental impact of a certain product throughout its life cycle. This is essential to be able to define the foundations of sustainability strategies and to start working on making production processes more environmentally friendly.

Information extracted from the following sources: Qactus, 3D Printing Media Network, 3D Natives.

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