The economy is so bad right now that even our trash is worthless. Experts estimate that prices for recycled paper, metal and plastics have dropped 50 to 70 percent, or not even worth the while to ship them across the Pacific to China, which has imported more than 70 percent of the materials used in its recycling industry. Scrap copper peaked at $8,000 a ton in 2007, and it now brings $3,000. Some sources say paper is even down as much as 80 percent.
Recycled American scrap has been sitting in ships in Chinese ports, or scrap yards. Increasingly that recycled material will go into landfills. From a design engineering standpoint, it makes that old claim of designing products that are “recyclable” even less tenable. Even stuff that has had real value, like PET soda bottles, or high-density polyethylene milk bottles, is now struggling to find markets. So what’s happening to plastic car interiors, or engineering materials in washing machines or computers? It’s certainly not part of a tenable, economic recycling stream at least now - if it ever was.
Interviews I had with a great engineering team at a Massachusetts company this week reminded me that we really have to make decisions for ourselves about what makes sense from an environmental point of view. Just saying we specified a bioplastic, for example, doesn’t make it a good environmental choice. Or saying that we used a “recyclable” material doesn’t mean we did a good turn for the environment. We need to consider factors like how much energy did it take to ship those sub assemblies I specified? Would it have been better environmentally to have paid 5 percent more and bought from a local supplier? I’m sure there are a whole series of issues like that. And that kind of thinking is very different from the kind of marketing spin you often hear.
As the 3D printing and overall additive manufacturing ecosystem grows, standards and guidelines from standards bodies and government organizations are increasing. Multiple players with multiple needs are also driving the role of 3DP and AM as enabling technologies for distributed manufacturing.
A growing though not-so-obvious role for 3D printing, 4D printing, and overall additive manufacturing is their use in fabricating new materials and enabling new or improved manufacturing and assembly processes. Individual engineers, OEMs, university labs, and others are reinventing the technology to suit their own needs.
For vehicles to meet the 2025 Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, three things must happen: customers must look beyond the data sheet and engage materials supplier earlier, and new integrated multi-materials are needed to make step-change improvements.
3D printing, 4D printing, and various types of additive manufacturing (AM) will get even bigger in 2015. We're not talking about consumer use, which gets most of the attention, but processes and technologies that will affect how design engineers design products and how manufacturing engineers make them. For now, the biggest industries are still aerospace and medical, while automotive and architecture continue to grow.
More and more -- that's what we'll see from plastics and composites in 2015, more types of plastics and more ways they can be used. Two of the fastest-growing uses will be automotive parts, plus medical implants and devices. New types of plastics will include biodegradable materials, plastics that can be easily recycled, and some that do both.
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