3D opportunity for life cycle assessments

Additive manufacturing branches out

Life cycle analysis—traditionally used to assess environmental impacts—can also help quantify the potential savings of adopting additive manufacturing techniques, allowing companies to look beyond traditional cost models and metrics to more holistically determine how AM may benefit the business.

Colloquially known as 3D printing, additive manufacturing (AM) offers myriad advantages in terms of labor, materials, speed to market, and prototyping and design. It can also be more cost-effective than conventional manufacturing in situations that involve long lead times, high inventory costs, complex or expensive parts, and remote locations where sourcing and shipping are difficult.2 To realize the potential benefits of AM, however, inherent challenges must be managed, including limitations on volume, size, and range of materials, many of which make conventional manufacturing better for some products.3 These trade-offs are, by now, well established in the AM literature.

With an increasing number of manufacturers considering the adoption of AM in their supply chains, companies should be able to evaluate whether AM makes sense for their particular purposes. To do so might require looking beyond traditional cost models and metrics to more holistically determine the impacts of AM adoption. Life cycle assessment (LCA) adds an important perspective, enabling companies to more fully evaluate this critical decision. The goal of an LCA is to understand the environmental impact of bringing a product or service to the market. An LCA evaluates an expanded set of inputs at their rawest form across each stage of the life cycle, from extraction or development of raw materials through processing, manufacturing, use, and end-of-life disposal.

Traditional decision making in AM adoption

When considering machinery investments for traditional manufacturing, producers typically develop in-depth cost models to examine direct costs, such as raw materials and labor, as well as other indirect costs—production overhead, machine maintenance costs, and so on—to determine whether an investment is justified. Evaluation of similar factors is recommended when constructing a business case for additive manufacturing. Thinking in these terms alone, however, may be limiting, as these elements may not reveal the full picture of the value offered by AM. For example, AM can be more environmentally friendly than more conventional manufacturing methods. Beyond generating less material waste, AM’s use in a supply chain along path II (supply chain evolution) can help reduce the need for shipping and transportation, resulting in fewer emissions. In addition, AM can decrease the need for other environmentally detrimental materials, including cutting fluids that may be caustic or hazardous; and the lighter weight of many AM-produced parts can help save fuel and energy.

3D opportunity for life cycle assessments
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