3D printing can offer efficiency and sustainability gains, making it an appealing tool for manufacturers including General Electric and Alcoa with applications ranging from medical devices to aerospace and possibly, even drinking water.
In April GE opened a $39 million hub for additive manufacturing — or 3D printing — near Pittsburgh that GE says “will drive innovation and implementation of additive manufacturing across the company.”
And just last week Alcoa opened a 3D printing metal powder production facility that will produce titanium, nickel and aluminum powders for 3D printed aerospace parts.
Because the technology is centered on materials, however, the downside of 3D printing could be increased waste. Some companies are looking to more sustainable processes and materials — such as recycled plastics — to make 3D printing more environmentally sustainable.
Voodoo Manufacturing, a software-optimized 3D-printing manufacturing company, produces about 200 pounds of plastic waste each month. The company provides both direct print and larger-scale volume print services, manufacturing thousands of parts quickly. All Voodoo’s printing requires filament, the ink for 3D printers, and much of that filament is made of plastic.
To reduce its waste and resources used in the 3D printing process, Voodoo teamed up with Filabot to recycle plastic waste into 3D filament. Over the past eight months, this partnership has allowed Voodo to recycle more than 600 pounds of plastic.
“Filabot makes a machine called an extruder that takes small plastic pellets, heats them up and melts them together, and then extrudes the plastic in a thin wire, which is used as the feedstock for our 3D printers,” Voodoo Manufacturing co-founder and CEO Max Friefeld told Environmental Leader.
The machine allow companies or individuals to make their own filament by recycling old 3D printed parts or other plastic items such as cups and milk jugs.
Friefeld says Voodoo’s partnership with Filabot is unique in that Voodoo hasn’t purchased an extruder but instead, sends Filabot its scrap material that is then ground into pellets and recycled into in to filament for 3D printing. “We are hoping to buy this filament back from them in the future, thus closing the loop,” Friefeld said.
Filament represents about 30 percent of Voodoo’s recyclable waste. The company also recycles the spools that hold filament for the 3D printers.
Friefeld says Voodoo has spent more than $1,500 to date to ensure its filament is responsibly recycled. “I think that commitment just shows how fundamentally important the environment is to all of us. As we scale to become the largest producer of 3D printed plastic parts in the world, we see recycling as an industry-leading responsibility, not an option or marketing tactic.
“Business-wise, I think our customers connect with the environmental considerations we are taking,” he continued. “We’re happy that they support us in this mission, but honestly, I could care less whether they want us to recycle or not, we are doing it for ourselves.”
Manufacturers’ waste management responsibilities should extend beyond factory walls, according to Friefeld, who says manufacturers should be accountable for product lifecycle planning.
“Maybe we recycle our own waste, but we need to make sure all of the products we produce have a recycling plan,” he said. “Plastics needs to be properly marked so that consumers and recyclers know how to sort and process them. I don’t think our mission will be complete until we know that 100 percent of the product that leaves this factory stays out of a landfill. I think Filabot shares that core mission with us, and we are excited to explore ways to do this together.”