Sustainability is on everyone's radar nowadays. Companies have audacious goals to reduce their overall carbon footprint. In some instances, banks and lenders mandate that a company show that they have sustainability goals and plans. Many contracts with public agencies require a proposal to have a sustainability plan or provide evidence that they have a program or programs that entails sustainability.
For those who use 3D printers, sustainability is a built-in benefit. With additive manufacturing there's much less waste. In addition, a 3D printer is quite versatile and can print with a wide variety of materials. This means more sustainable materials may be used.
Developing Reusable Resins for Feedstock
At Stanford University, many energy-savings initiatives are underway. One relevant to 3D printing is their intended research to discover more "circular" materials to be used for 3D printers. They are working on developing a reusable 3D printing resin that can be "printed, bulk erased and re-printed over numerous cycles."
Stanford describes their effort as one that is "enabled by orthogonal polymerization and depolymerization photo-chemistries that are triggered by distinct wavelengths of light." They plan to employ chemical processes to enable nanocapsules brought on by low energy light at longer wavelengths.
In a news story on Stanford's site, they quoted an assisted professor of electrical engineering: “The 3D-printing market is growing at a dizzying pace, yet the vast majority of materials are discarded after a single use, with most materials recyclable only through the use of expensive and specialized equipment,” said this project’s principal investigator, Dan Congreve, assistant professor of electrical engineering. “Using these nanocapsules allows us to access new recycling methods that could allow these materials to be recycled many times.”
Introducing Bio-based Materials
At the University of Idaho, their school of engineering is working conjointly with their school of architecture to develop sustainable material that can be used to 3D print forms and structures from bio-based materials. They are working on a 3D printer capable of producing modular wall, floor and roof panels printed from a composite material, like wood, for industrial construction.
The research effort is funded by a National Science Foundation grant. The 3D-printing technology will assist Idaho’s fast-growing construction industry. The University of Idaho cites factoids from the U.S. Energy Information Administration who found that 60% of global waste is produced from the construction sector. Refining 3D printing to print from sustainable composite material for construction use, could be a huge step forward for sustainability in the construction sector.
Employing Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to Optimize Print Designs
The advantage of 3D printing is that it may be customized for a specific application and repeated for multiple cycles as needed. Thus, it's ideal to conserve the amount of product used. While much research is going into the type of materials being used that promote sustainability, there's a great case to be made for optimizing the design to use limited printing resources.
At MIT, they're turning to a popular favorite, not just by the University, but all scientists and engineers nowadays: AI and machine learning. By learning a fabrication sequence and knowing desired properties, they can put machine learning to work to arrive at optimal measured materials to be used for a print fabrication.
As one of their researchers described it, "Materials development is still very much a manual process. A chemist goes into a lab, mixes ingredients by hand, makes samples, tests them, and comes to a final formulation. But rather than having a chemist who can only do a couple of iterations over a span of days, our system can do hundreds of iterations over the same time span,” says Mike Foshey, a mechanical engineer and project manager in the Computational Design and Fabrication Group (CDFG) of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), and co-lead author of the paper."
The journey starts with a few ingredients. They gather details on their chemical compositions and then insert those details into the algorithm. The algorithms help identify, using AI, required mechanical properties of the new material. The algorithm can then fine tune the composition of materials to arrive at an optimal material formulation. Once they create the material and test it, as with all machine learning, all results become part of their machine learning and refining the output.
Using AI in this way is a leap forward and one that generates many different useful possibilities for many applications. For sustainability, it can help find a material that may be environmentally friendly. It may be reusable and recyclable, or not give off any harmful emission, or it may be biodegradable and compostable at its end of life. There are numerous possibilities available when AI is put to work in this way.
Sustainability has been a top-of-mind topic. In the near term and the long term, it will be even more top of mind. We can expect 3D printing to be joining the forward march in finding better ways to use 3D printing, with better materials, to catapult our posture of sustainability into the future.