Environmental Chemistry

Cultivating an Environmental and Human Health Assessment Framework for Additive Manufacturing: A Journey from an Academic/Industry Partnership to a Consortia-Supported Model by Justin Bours

There often comes a point in a science graduate student’s academic career when the desire to step outside the ivory tower becomes inexorable: one step outside of academia toward industry partnership opens up a path that is tantalizingly tangible and impactful. When I took that step, I went on a journey of discovery that ultimately led to a maturing framework for measuring the environmental and human health impacts of additive manufacturing (AM) which has garnered both industry and academic credibility.

Stage 1: Initiate academic/industry collaboration

My path began with taking the Greener Solutions course at UC Berkeley, sponsored by the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry (BCGC). The class brought together graduate students to solve a green chemistry issue proposed by an industry partner. The feeling of making a tangible impact by leveraging my scientific knowledge was exciting and led me to seek more of these collaborations.

In the Fall of 2014, Autodesk approached BCGC to enlist their help in understanding the health effects of the AM resins they had developed in conjunction with their stereolithography (SLA) printer, Ember. Having sought out BCGC after the Greener Solutions course, I was subsequently tasked by then BCGC director Martin Mulvihill to tackle the issue. We formed a team with Tom McKeag, BCGC’s current director, and collaborated with a wide coalition of talented staff at Autodesk, including Dawn Danby, Susan Gladwin, and Brian Adzima. The initial challenge was limited in scope: how do the health impacts of Autodesk’s PR48 resin compare to those of other stereolithography resins? Further, how can bio-inspired design and knowledge of molecular structure lead to improvement?

Stage 2:  Explore solution to initial problem, reevaluate goals and comprehensiveness of solution

The results of our investigation were that Autodesk’s PR48 was best-in-class among SLA resin-types, but molecular structural elements, such as a bio-derived polymer backbone, could lead to improvements in health impacts. While a solution was achieved, it left much to be desired. My desire to improve tangible health outcomes and Autodesk’s desire to be a leader in sustainability led to interest in a more comprehensive solution. The goals for this comprehensive solution included:

  1. Create more informed decision making: create a tool that allows for easy comparison between materials/technologies.
  2. Allow for identification of improved processes, materials.

With these goals in mind and from analysis of the initial problem, we knew we had to take into account that AM technology and its materials are unlike others in their effects:  they create new exposure pathways, they lead to a dispersed distribution of waste, and they can potentially put sensitive populations at risk . Additionally, there is a large variety of different technologies, making one-to-one comparisons challenging. This shifted the focus from solely health effects to those who are affected. Moreover, determining who is affected required using life-cycle thinking.

Thus, we sought to define the life cycle stages of AM technologies through this new framework. This would inform who is affected and how, thereby guiding the specific tools used to measure the important impacts at each life cycle stage (i.e. chemical hazard assessment, sustainable materials management). During the development of this framework, Autodesk enhanced its academic collaboration with BCGC by partnering to create their own Greener Solutions course challenge. In it, they tasked students to develop novel green material solutions for SLA and utilize the framework to make sure that the two main goals were being achieved.[1]

Stage 3:  Reach a wider audience and gain academic credibility – publish results

With an opportunity offered by the Journal for Industry Ecology to publish our work in a AM-focused issue, there was greater impetus to further develop this framework. After all, academic affirmation of such a framework would enhance its credibility and validate its ability to adequately measure the impacts of AM. The framework and an example of its ability to compare two different AM materials/technologies was published in May of 2017.[2],[3]

Stage 4: Refine results and reach an even wider audience by getting feedback from key stakeholders

The framework was also generating interest from non-profit entities. Lauren Heine, co-creator of GreenScreen and head of Northwest Green Chemistry (NGC), had experience in collecting stakeholders in the development of human health and environmental indicators/frameworks and approached Autodesk with an interest in further developing the framework. BCGC, under the new direction of Tom McKeag, was also interested in developing the framework further. Thus, I was tapped to lead that development with the support of NGC and BCGC. In addition to strengthening certain elements such as end-of-use metrics, we sought out an extensive list of key stakeholders involved in AM systems and materials from industry, academia, government and NGOs, as well as experts of sustainability tools such as life-cycle assessment (LCA) and chemical hazard assessment (CHA). We then presented a summary of the most up-to-date framework, with the goal of obtaining feedback on how to improve it.

The result from the first roundtable discussion with stakeholders was a set of agreements, as well as concerns, about the goal of an appropriate assessment tool that supports decision making for material selection and product design. The agreements included the following:

  1. Results should be simple and visual
  2. There will always be tradeoffs and imperfect information
  3. Tradeoffs should be transparent
  4. No one assessment tool can provide all of the answers on sustainability.

Stakeholders were particularly concerned about the following:

  1. At what scale and scope of the assessment can a comparison be performed (i.e. how does one account for quantity of prints, can you compare materials between technologies?)?,
  2. How can all the variables that enter into decision making that includes metrics beyond sustainability (cost, function, performance) be balanced?
  3. How is a material reutilization or circularity addressed?

Stage 5:  Based on feedback from initial consortium, create and present a variety of prototypes that are modulations of the initial framework

The feedback from the roundtable discussion led us to bring in additional subject matter experts (SMEs) such as Alysia Garmulewicz who has authored papers on how 3D printing can unlock value in the circular economy [4], and Jeremy Faludi, an LCA expert, and former BCGC SAGE fellow, who has written numerous publications[5],[6],[7] on measuring the environmental impacts of AM using LCA. With Jeremy’s guidance, we determined that to best address the concerns in the previous discussion, we should create several different prototypes of modulated frameworks that target the concerns specifically. In our second discussion call with the stakeholder group, we discussed these prototypes and the feedback we obtained has allowed us to further refine the framework and the path forward.

Stage  ?: What’s Next

Throughout this process, the goals have remained the same – all involved hope to create a decision-making framework that 1) allows for easy, appropriate comparison between AM materials/technologies and 2) allows for identification of improved processes, materials. The form and breadth of that decision-making framework has yet to be determined, whether as a tool for government policy, as an internal tool for AM industry to make decisions, or as a standard like EPEAT or Cradle to Cradle Certified that AM industry can adopt to verify the safety and sustainability of their materials/printers. All remain exciting possibilities, however. What is certain is the great potential impact of academic and industry collaboration to create change-making mechanisms for improving the impacts of materials and technologies on our health and the environment.  So, for those peaking outside their ivory tower windows, or those in industry peaking inside, take a leap and prepare for a fruitful journey of discovery!


[1] See Autodesk’s blog posts about this collaboration in a three part series: 1, 2, 3.

[2] Bours, J., B. Adzima, S. Gladwin, J. Cabral, S. Mau. 2017. Addressing Hazardous Implications of Additive Manufacturing: Complementing Life Cycle Assessment with a Framework for Evaluating Direct Human Health and Environmental Impacts. Journal of Industrial Ecology. DOI: 10.1111/jiec.12587.

[3] Academic feedback was further garnered from presentation of the work at the Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference in June of 2017.

[4] Despeisse, M., M. Baumers, P. Brown, F. Charnley, S.J. Ford, A. Garmulewicz, S. Knowles, T.H.W. Minshall, L. Mortara, F.P. Reed-Tsochoas, J. Rowley. 2017.Unlocking value for a circular economy through 3D printing: a research agenda. Technological Forecasting & Social Change  115: 75-84.

[5] Faludi, J., C. Bayley, S. Bhogal, and M. Iribarne. 2015. Comparing environmental impacts of additive manufacturing vs traditional machining via life-cycle assessment. Rapid Prototyping Journal 21(1): 14–33.

[6] Faludi, J. 2016. Estimating the environmental impacts of widespread additive manufacturing. Paris: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

[7] Faludi, J., T. Hoang, M. Mulvihill, and P. Gorman. 2016. Aiding alternatives assessment with an uncertainty-tolerant hazard scoring method. Journal of Environmental Management 182: 111–125.


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