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Study Additive Manufacturing and Life Cycle Assessment

Editor: MA Alexander Stark

How Resource-Friendly is Additive Manufacturing? The VDI Center for Resource Efficiency is investigating this question in a study and compares metal 3D printing with conventional manufacturing.

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Faster, more economical, more durable? A study published by VDI ZRE compares metal powder additive manufacturing with conventional production.
Faster, more economical, more durable? A study published by VDI ZRE compares metal powder additive manufacturing with conventional production.
(Source: ©oatawa - stock.adobe.com)

Additive processes are said to be faster and cheaper. This is partly because less waste is produced, and less waste is generated during production. It is therefore expected to play a central role in small and medium-sized enterprises in the manufacturing sector. Rightly so?

In a study called “Ecological and Economic Assessment of Resource Expenditure: Additive Manufacturing Processes in Industrial Production”, the VDI Centre for Resource Efficiency (VDI ZRE) compared the resource consumption of an additive manufacturing process with a conventional manufacturing process. This study examined a medium-sized series production, which is not yet widespread in 3D printing. In a first step, the structure of the component to be additively manufactured was optimized. In this way, the volume of the component could be reduced, and material consumption reduced.

Drop Forging versus Selective Laser Melting (SLM)

A damper fork for a passenger car was produced. Conventionally this consists of a drop-forged aluminum casting alloy and weighs 1.3 kg. Production includes the casting production steps of drop forging, deburring, heat treatment and milling. For the additive manufacturing process, Laser Beam Melting (LBM) was chosen. In this

selective laser melting process, two different aluminum powders were melted locally and applied layer by layer on a base plate.

More Energy, More Raw Materials, More Emissions

What was the result? 3D printing consumed more energy, more raw materials, more water and more space than conventional production. Greenhouse gas emissions are also rising. In addition, the material and operating costs are considerably higher. These effects are primarily attributable to the high basic electrical consumption of the LBM system and its powder and maintenance costs. However, the VDI ZRE still has hope for improvement. Technical improvements to the LBM plant, which are to be expected in the future, will greatly reduce the environmental impact and costs. The gap between conventional and additive manufacturing will narrow in the medium term in terms of economic efficiency and resource efficiency.

The study shows that, in individual cases, it is necessary to weigh very carefully when additive and conventional manufacturing processes are chosen. In the case of the passenger car damper fork, the mass reduction achieved by additive manufacturing is negligible and has no effect on the fuel consumption of the car. The situation is different in aerospace, medical technology and bionic product concepts. In these cases, lighter components can achieve greater savings during the utilization phase. In the future, metallic workpieces will very probably neither be produced exclusively by conventional means nor exclusively by additive processes. Instead, 3D printing processes will complement the conventional methods, the VDI ZRE claims.

The study will soon be available for free on the VDI ZRE website.

This article was first published by MM MaschinenMarkt

Original by Simone Käfer / Translation by Alexander Stark

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