Once every millennium, a more advanced process comes along to disrupt the normal way of doing things. It simplifies difficult tasks in such a way that just about everyone can participate in its revolution. Additive manufacturing, otherwise known as three-dimensional (3D) printing, falls into this category. The choice to include additive manufacturing into the hallowed circle of technical processes that have the ability to change the manufacturing industry is due to how it simplifies manufacturing processes. It threatens traditional product prototyping techniques and is slowly being accepted in diverse industry verticals. As of today, almost all facets of human life – including medicine, biotech, engineering, construction, fashion and the food industry – have been directly affected by 3D printing as more individuals experiment with using additive manufacturing to meet their needs. As with every disruptive technology, the theory of cause and effect comes into play and additive manufacturing is no different. The widespread use of 3D printing has caused some uproar from various industry verticals including: traditional manufacturing enterprises who believe it will negatively affect employment, legal practitioners who foresee the occurrence of copyright infringements, and law enforcement who might have to tackle criminals building weapons from the comfort of their homes. But more important is the effect that 3D printing would have on the world’s environment. The effects, which are both positive and negative in nature, are worth discussing because in the near future, a 3D printer could be as ubiquitous as the PC and found in most homes. Such a scenario will lead to the need for biodegradable 3D-printing materials, more efficient ways to manage heat/energy emissions, personal waste management systems as well as eco-friendly energy sources to provide power for the multiple mini-factories running in most homes. On the positive side, additive manufacturing is been touted as a lean manufacturing process with the ability to eliminate or at least reduce material waste when compared to manufacturing using traditional techniques. And the ability to make use of discarded materials to build 3D objects has made it a champion to supporters of the recycling movement. Despite these positives, a lifecycle assessment (LCA) case study that compared and contrasted the environmental impact of 3D printing against traditional manufacturing processes raised some concerns. This test, which included the use of two 3D printers and a computer numerical control mill, showed that although 3D printing truly managed waste, other issues such as high energy use and the possibility of toxic emissions were raised. The study found that the longer a 3D printer was in operation, the more energy it consumed, the more heat it produced and toxins from fused ink or filament were released into the ecosystem. This is where the European Environmental Policy comes into effect.

Europe’s environmental policies and 3D printing

The state of Europe’s economy and the condition of its environment directly affects the lives of its citizens, as a large part of the EU economy is actually dependent on its environment. Therefore, to ensure that the environment does not get damaged solely for economic gain, environmental policy, environmental tax and other measures have been put in place to protect the environment. Some of these measures include:
  • The ROHS Directives: The 2002 edict restricting the use of hazardous substances when manufacturing electrical components and toys provide some clear-cut instructions on the use of lead-free metal and brominated flame retardants-free (BFR-free) plastics, as well as the acceptable percentage of BFR in plastics that can be used for manufacturing toys and other domestic items. These directives also affect the use of plastic filaments in 3D printing due to the recyclable and toxicity problems they pose to European cities;
  • The WEEE Directives: The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directives were passed in 2003. They placed emphasis on the amount of electronic waste that the European population should produce and also set restrictions on the electronic components European manufacturers could make use of when manufacturing electronic devices. These restrictions applied to devices that can be manufactured using 3D printing techniques, such as toys, household appliances and IT equipment in order to make them easily disposable or recyclable when the need arises.
Although certain exemptions to these restrictions have been made over time, the majority of them have been upheld more than a decade later. As expected, certain measures have been put in place to ensure that manufacturers inform the public concerning the components in electrical and plastic items. Some of these measures included special labelling and documentation processes – such as displaying the CE mark on products – to sensitise the public on how to dispose of such items. It is clear to see that enforcing these policies on a society reliant on additive manufacturing will be quite difficult, due to the fact that almost everyone would be able to manufacture both domestic and commercial items right from the comfort of their homes. The average domestic 3D printer comes with the capability to fuse various types of plastic – including filaments contacting BFR, which is hazardous to the ecosystem. More advanced 3D printers have the capability to print 3D objects using metal resins, thereby raising the possibility of 3D-printed objects on the wrong side of the ROHS directives flooding the market. These realistic possibilities mean that the European Commission must come up with new methods of sensitising the public and launching awareness campaigns that do not target only established manufacturing enterprises, but also the lay man using additive manufacturing to produce domestic items for the personal use of his or her family members. When large business corporations move into and set up in EU countries – often with staff recruited from various different countries – it would be an uphill task to ensure adherence to the set environmental policies. Ireland receives a large business influx on a yearly basis, due to its business environment and tax-friendly policies, thereby making it one of the important European ecosystems in which the effects of additive manufacturing would be experienced. This raises the question: is Ireland prepared for the additive manufacturing revolution?

Ireland’s ecosystem and additive manufacturing

Over the years, Ireland has earned itself a reputation as one of the top countries in the EU for pursuing economic growth and a better life for its citizens by investing in technology. This commitment, which cuts across its diverse industry verticals, has begun to show results. For example, the medtech sector ranks as one the top-ten markets for cleantech investment worldwide. Ireland has also wholeheartedly embraced the possibilities that additive manufacturing offers and, with hundreds of established 3D printing firms operating out of Ireland, the manufacturing landscape is looking quite promising. But this raises some questions on the corresponding effects it will have on the ecosystem. Although certain measures are already in place to ensure that the European environmental policies are implemented, more measures such as those outlined below must also be considered to protect the ecosystem for future generations. Building information modelling (BIM) platforms simplify collaboration and the design of 3D objects and also makes it possible for both State and manufacturing enterprises to communicate with one another. This provides an avenue for Government agencies to lay out guidelines or integrate eco-friendly design policies to additive manufacturers using computer-aided design. Just like the Employer’s Information Requirement integration in BIM modelling platforms, a corresponding Manufacturing Information Requirement that is eco-friendly can be drafted to guide 3D printing processes for manufacturers.
  • Integrating 3D printing in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Act: To counter environmental degradation from oil spills and the poor management of hazardous waste, the EPA Act was set up in 1992, and it incorporated the use of a task force to spread awareness and ensure erring parties adhere to the new changes on waste management. The EPA act should also be broadened to include managing additive manufacturing waste and special emphasis should be placed on monitoring domestic 3D printing practices;
  • Creating a 3D printing tax: A proposed printing tax, which takes into consideration the amount of energy used in manufacturing items as well as the temperatures emitted by the 3D printer, can be enforced to ensure eco-friendly printing practices. Such a levy would encourage developers of 3D printers to develop more eco-friendly machines, while additive manufacturing enthusiasts will consider alternative energy sources to power 3D printing projects.
The future is ours to mould; therefore it is imperative that measures be put in place to forestall the effects of additive manufacturing on our ecosystem as mankind moves into the fourth industrial age.

Matthew Murray is the managing director of Notable. See www.notable.com.sg for more.