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3D printing – a sustainable manufacturing revolution?

By 26th April 2016 Blog, Sustainability No Comments

The US Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has just approved the first 3D printed medicine. It paves the way for huge growth in the production of tailored, bespoke medicines. Could it also herald a massive boost to sustainability in manufacturing?

Currently, most medicines are manufactured at quite significant scale.

Firstly, there’s the production of the Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient or API. These are often made via complex, multi-stage synthesis of chemicals in specialist fine chemicals plants, where it’s not uncommon for API to be produced in 1 tonne batches.

Doing so often gives rise to very substantial quantities of waste – for some API products, 1 tonne of waste might give rise to as much as 8 tonnes of chemical waste.

Then, secondly, there’s the formulation of the final product, be that a tablet, capsule, syrup or injectable. Here, we see the API added to a range of excipients (non-active ingredients) and formed into the finished dose or article. But, again, this stage of the pharmaceutical production process is far from waste free.

And, lastly, there’s the process of packaging the drug into its carton, complete with regulatory labelling and Patient Information Leaflet – where machine jams and mis-feeds are a constant source of rejects.

And that all assumes that batch testing for efficacy and contaminants during Quality Control doesn’t lead to fully finished product being discarded.

Currently, making medicines can be pretty wasteful.

A switch to 3D printing, which can be done at a far smaller scale, could offer all sorts of advantages when it comes to reducing waste and boosting sustainability.

And that’s just in pharmaceuticals. Imagine the benefits of 3D printing across all sectors of manufacturing – suddenly, the resultant energy and raw material savings could be enormous, as could the avoidance of waste.

3D printing: just in time, just enough and just right

From a sustainability perspective, 3D printing could prove to be just what we need to change patterns of consumption for the better.

It offers the prospect of moving to the ultimate ‘Goldilocks’ standard of manufacturing – where businesses can produce the exact component, right when it’s needed, in just the right quantity (so there’s less need to store inventory) and to exactly the right specification.

In fact, it’s possible to imagine a scenario where some existing component manufacturers might be persuaded to switch away from producing the end product themselves to instead selling their customers the 3D printers and raw materials they need to do it themselves – in the same way that micro power generation has been encouraged in the last decade, so we could see the promotion of a micro manufacturing revolution.

Less waste, longer lasting resources and lower emissions

According to the Green Alliance think-tank, the UK extracted or imported 570 million tonnes of resources in 2000, of which around 50 million tonnes was recycled after first use and 210 million tonnes wasted.

Things have been getting better: over the years, as circular economy thinking has started to gain traction, consumption and waste of resources has fallen whilst recycling has grown.

This is important for several reasons:

Firstly, some of those resources can’t be replenished and will one day run out. Along the way, the costs of those everyday raw materials will rise, with commodity price spikes becoming more common.

Secondly, a move toward a more circular economy could create new jobs and boost Britain’s economy.

Then there are the attendant energy savings that could be leveraged by a switch to 3D printing. Running factories requires a constant supply of large quantities of energy, and although that will fluctuate depending on throughput, there’s a base requirement that stays roughly constant.

Reducing energy consumption in manufacturing would inevitably lead to emissions savings.

The advent of 3D printing, viewed in this context, could prove to be a real sustainability game changer.

Watch this space.

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