Every nation wants to do away with plastics, but it is easier said than done. Scientists are working day-in and day-out to create sustainable solutions for the plastic-wrapped population. While newer and better alternatives are developed each day, only a few achieve the desired results. We have tried banning plastic bags and using organic materials instead but to no avail. According to some surveys, the US is an undebatable leader in plastic pollution, creating more plastic waste than other countries. It generated about 46 million tons of plastic waste in 2016. It also ranks among the top 3 largest coastal countries that dump mismanaged waste into the blues. The negative reputation has led the country to brainstorm ideas to reduce the amount of plastic waste, without compromising the lifestyle of its citizens.
However, a part of the population has accepted the sustainability move more readily than others. In 2018, sustainable products comprised about 22% of store sales. It is expected to reach 25% by the end of this year. But different generations have different approaches towards sustainable shopping. While millennials and Gen-Z people are keen to buy sustainable products, baby boomers tend to stick to their traditional shopping habits. Hence, it is evident that we have to do more than introduce organic alternatives to plastic products to achieve a 100% plastic-free future.
Can 3D printing help in this noble endeavor?
Before we delve into the plastic removal benefits of 3D printing, we should understand how the technology works.
What is 3D printing, and what are the benefits?
It is the process of printing three-dimensional, real-life objects by depositing layers of printable materials. Primarily developed for designing and prototyping, additive manufacturing has come a long way. In 2020, it shared the load of the healthcare sector in supplying emergency protective equipment, e.g., masks, respirators, PPE kits, ventilators, and valves, to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Without the small-scale additive manufacturers, the country would have faced a hard time supplying essential equipment to the frontline workers. As the 3D printing process follows layer-by-layer deposition of materials, it is less cost-intensive and way faster than traditional manufacturing procedures. However, the only limitation is the size of products that depends on the 3D printer used.
First of all, one needs to choose a printable 3D model, which is then sliced into several layers using slicing software. These layers are introduced into the 3D printer to create a replica of the model through the deposition process. From spare parts to actual, real-time objects, anything that falls within the limitations of the printer can be cloned using this technology.
What are the various components of a 3D printer?
In the world of additive manufacturing, the 3D printer is everything. It consists of several intricate parts, components that decide the quality of the printed product and the speed of the process. It has a controller board, also known as the brain, which handles all the core operations, like interpreting sensor inputs and directing components on the commands received from a linked system. It is the controller board that decides the performance of the printer. If you have high-end components in the printer but a low-quality controller board, the end product will never be up to the mark.
The next component in order of importance is the printing filament. You may call it the ‘ink’ of the 3D printer, as its function is similar to that of a regular 2D office printer. A pool of the printing filament is loaded into the spool holder, keeping its end in the extruder. The printers may vary based on their filament compatibility. While some of these are limited to using only the standard filaments, advanced printers can go to the length of using other exotic materials.
The frame of a 3D printer forms the base that keeps all parts together and also determines the durability of the machine. While some printers come with an enclosed frame to keep dust and dirt away, others, like the Ultimaker 3, are semi-enclosed. The latter has its sides covered, but the top and front-sides open.
While these are the stable components, stepper motors, threaded rods, belts, and end stops are motion components that carry on the printing process.
You may be wondering about the reasons for giving such intricate details about the 3D printer structure and components. Well, it is in the parts of the 3D printer that its plastic-riddance capacity lies.
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How can 3D printers help reduce plastic pollution?
One thing is for sure! It will not be easy to remove plastics from the lives of millions at once. It is a gradual process and will take time to be implemented successfully across the world. However, if we can find out a way to recycle plastic waste, the load on the environment will reduce dramatically. Only about 10% of plastic waste gets recycled today. We need to be more active and adopt effective measures to create awareness about plastic recycling. And yes, the 3D printers can contribute to that.
It has been observed through experiments that plastic materials can be shredded into tiny pieces, heated, and melted to form plastic filaments for the 3D printer. Thus, more and more plastic waste can be recycled into 3D printing filaments to print insignificant plastic products, like small toys or artificial jewelry. If more companies start adopting the additive manufacturing technology, lesser plastics will be produced, as the filaments will be created from existing waste. It will be like following the famous saying – “What goes around comes around”- word by word.
Apart from recycling plastic waste, many printers already use PLA (Polylactic Acid) filaments, which are regarded as an eco-friendly alternative to regular plastic. It is a biodegradable material that can withstand higher manufacturing temperatures and also come in various shades. The only challenge of using PLA filaments is, these need to be decomposed in special composting facilities, requiring proper temperature, oxygen, and chemical conditions. However, these are still better than the regular plastics that are non-biodegradable under any condition.
As more manufacturers take to 3D-printing, the recycled filament will reduce plastic waste dumped into the oceans and landfills. So, the main concern right now is increasing the adoption rate of additive manufacturing in both small and large-scale sectors.
How to increase the rate of 3D printed production?
To widespread the growth of additive manufacturing, its challenges need to be overcome first. Higher investment to develop advanced printers, democratizing their use, and expanding the range of printable materials are three ways to increase the scope of 3D printing across all sectors. While the medical industry is leading the adoption of this futuristic technology, aerospace and the automobile are the next ones in the line. Industrial adoption of additive manufacturing will take more time, as it is still in the early mainstream stage, limited to the production of spare parts, fixtures, jigs, besides the development of prototypes.
The consumer goods manufacturing units are in the adolescent stage of adoption, led by the shoe and visual accessories industries. However, these sectors can easily jump to the mainstream once they realize the immense benefits of 3D printing, including mass customization and complicated design features. The electronics industry is also in the adolescent stage of 3D printing production, confined to the prototyping of circuit boards, capacitors, and antennas. Both the construction and oil and natural resource sectors are in the early stages of additive manufacturing adoption.
So, what can you do to increase the adoption rate in all these sectors?
- Adequate awareness – Nothing can match the impact knowledge has on society. With targeted awareness programs, the benefits of additive manufacturing can be promoted universally. Training, education, and awareness are the three pillars that support any new technology, and 3D printing need not be an exception.
- Advanced 3D printers – With newer and better machines, even small-scale manufacturers will take an interest in 3D printing. They will realize how it helps reduce production costs and timing, besides generating lesser waste. At present, they understand how wonderful the new technology is for prototyping and spare parts production. But once the advanced machines are launched in the market, they will be keener to invest in something that ensures higher returns.
- Availability of cost-effective printers – The expensiveness of 3D printers was the limiting factor for large-scale adoption of the technology before. But thankfully things have taken a turn for the better. We are getting more affordable and portable options for low-volume production. All one has to do is order a 3D printer online and get started. Such trends will level up the adoption rate in the coming days.
- Increased recyclability – The eco-friendly factor surrounding the PLA filaments and recycled filaments in 3D printers may encourage sustainable manufacturers to take an interest in additive manufacturing. As more environmentalists promote the idea, green lovers will jump on the 3D printing bandwagon.
What role do we have to play in this?
At Additive Accelerator, we aim to provide effective and ROI-ensured solutions to our clients, who come to us for advice on 3D printing technologies. We help them understand what will be best for their organization, as not all additive manufacturing technologies suit every business. We can also help them identify their potential in managing 3D printing production, whether in spare parts manufacture, prototyping, or mainstream consumer goods production. With years of experience in the field, we can also fill them in on the details of eco-friendly 3D printing and reveal the reality of it. If you are clueless about this futuristic technology that aims to revolutionize the manufacturing sector, feel free to talk. We are here not only to enlighten you but also to choose an apt solution for your business.