3D printing – the sustainable path to reshoring American manufacturing.
By Christina Valimaki

We hear a lot about the dangers of running a trade deficit. Last year the US deficit increased to a staggering $502bn by the end of 2016. The reason is simple – we import a phenomenal amount of goods into the country. In April 2017 alone, $239.8bn worth of goods arrived into America. And part of the reason for this imbalance has been the decline in American manufacturing. Since 2000, experts believe that around five million manufacturing jobs have disappeared or gone overseas. Today, China accounts for a quarter of global manufacturing; creating 80 per cent of the world’s air-conditioners, 70 per cent of its mobile phones and 60 per cent of its shoes.

But the offshoring of American manufacturing doesn’t only hurt the deficit. The environmental cost of importing so many products is huge. Globally, shipping accounts for around 1000m tonnes of CO2 emissions a year, with aviation adding a further 781m. Within three years shipping is expected to account for 17 per cent of global emissions. For the sake of the planet, it’s critical that manufacturing is returned to American soil.

The rise of green manufacturing
Often, the decline of US manufacturing is seen by many as inevitable, but that isn’t necessarily the case. New technologies can help it to be re-shored, revitalized, and far more sustainable. A key technology at the heart of this shift is 3D printing – a technology set to be worth $33bn by 2023. The automated nature of 3D printing (coupled with technologies such as machine learning) lowers barriers to entry for new manufacturers by cutting down on labor costs.

Furthermore, the flexible nature of 3D printers means less machinery is needed than with traditional manufacturing, again reducing the initial expenditure required, and meaning that local businesses will be able to manage orders that would previously have been fulfilled abroad. And finally, since local manufacturers aren’t dealing with the same complex supply chain issues as their overseas competitors, they can be more responsive to customer needs.

Of course, raw materials will still be required from overseas markets but there is yet a net positive environmental impact, as raw materials take up less space than finished goods. The amount of rubber and plastic required to provide shoes for 320 million Americans is a lot less bulky if it’s being shipped in its raw state than if it’s being transported as ready-to-sell goods. By reducing the amount of capacity needed to carry the same materials, and then manufacturing the final products in the US, 3D printing can reduce global shipping demands – a major environmental benefit.

Sustainability is good business
A second potential cause of a boom in 3D-driven manufacturing is the evolution of customer purchasing habits. Consumers are more conscious of the environmental impacts of their purchases than ever before, with 84 per cent saying they seek out responsibly made and sourced products wherever possible. Given that 3D printed products can radically reduce the carbon footprint of an item, manufacturers can meet demand for sustainable goods and gain a competitive advantage.

Finally, 3D printing is also perfectly poised to meet the rising demand for personalized goods. Recent research found that 41 per cent of people want personalized goods, a statistic that rises to 53 per cent for the key 16-24 year-old demographic. 3D manufacturing is additive rather than subtractive, meaning that, instead of starting with excess material and discarding the unused bits, 3D printing operates more efficiently by adding one layer at a time and using only the necessary amount of material required for each part. The additive method of manufacturing enables far easier and quicker personalisation of goods, thus helping manufacturers to capture key market segments faster than competitors.

In order to take advantage of the potential of 3D printing, manufacturers must make sure they have the right information at their disposal. The equipment alone is not enough – they also need to be able to select the best materials and chemicals for use, assessing them on a range of metrics including cost, chemical by-product and environmental impact. As with any emerging technology, there are challenges.

It is still relatively early in the discovery process for materials and technologies used in additive manufacturing. A lack of expertise means some products experience avoidable defects, such as air pockets or structural weaknesses that can cause performance or durability issues down the line. 3D printing also remains energy intensive, and at present, is difficult to scale. Yet research is already improving the quality and finish of 3D printed goods – a trend we can expect to continue as manufacturers race to standardize the quality of the goods they produce. Already, new techniques, such as the printing of smooth-surface, free-form objects, provides an alternative to layered 3D printing that is better suited to curved products, and are helping to overcome some of these issues.

Manufacturers must also make sure they are keeping pace with innovations in the field. This requires access to the latest data – including published scientific literature, safety reports, conference papers, and media reports – allowing them adapt and respond as seamlessly as possible. From both an environmental and commercial perspective, it’s crucial that R&D departments have the tools that enable them to quickly find the data they need to support continuing innovation around 3D printing.

3D printing represents a major opportunity for US manufacturers and research continues to improve the technology daily. By embracing the knowledge that already exists, and keeping their fingers on the pulse of emerging information, US firms can engineer a sizeable competitive advantage and potentially secure invaluable IP protection for successful breakthroughs. As for the research community, increased research during these early stages of additive manufacturing offers a golden opportunity to expand our understanding of manufacturing techniques and materials characteristics. All too often, environmental issues are presented as the enemy to business needs – 3D printing shows us the potential benefits when they instead converge.

Christina Valimaki is Director for Chemicals, Elsevier R&D Solutions. Elsevier is a world-leading provider of information solutions that enhance the performance of science, health, and technology professionals, empowering them to make better decisions, deliver better care, and sometimes make ground-breaking discoveries that advance the boundaries of knowledge and human progress.