Plastics and 3D Printing: the future of luminaire production?

Coen Liedenbaum, Venture Manager at Signify and ‘entrepreneurial innovator’ sees the future of luminaires coming out of the nozzle of a 3D printer. Is he correct?

‘I believe it’s even more disruptive than LED lighting. This is all about energy-efficiency, carbon reduction, waste reduction and “making where you sell’’.’

There’s no arguing with Liedenbaum’s focus. For the sake of everyone’s future we have to address methods of production right now, and if this combination of plastics and a new production technique offer the way through, then we need to get a shift on.

But – to ask again – is he correct?

Some rebalancing needs to be done in the argument. Signify claim that a luminaire made using plastics and 3D printing has a 47% lower carbon footprint than a comparable metal fixture, but it’s what happens next that needs better consideration. Signify claims that this process is ‘circular’ by default because the material can be re-rendered to produce a second generation of luminaire. But that’s not where the Circular Economy is currently focused.
Remember the three aims:

Reduce – Reuse – Recycle . . . . . . and in that order!

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Recycling material from exhausted fixtures is the ‘least good’ option. Recycling plastics calls for a lot of energy; first to break the item down to its component material; then to create pellets from that material; and then to create the plastic filaments for the 3D printer so that you can  build a new fixture. Every one of those steps requires input energy and we can’t discount that away.

Reuse is a core philosophy of the Circular Economy. Only those components that no longer function (typically, the LED engine and the driver electronics) need be replaced. The luminaire body should be re-usable through many iterations of component replacement.

Reducing dependence on raw materials is also important. The reduction here concerns reducing waste in the production process. But plastics that go through the mechanical recovery process (the typical method used to treat reclaimed plastics) do not remove the need for new material in the process. The basic plastic pellets needed for an injection-moulded luminaire housing might need to have a percentage of virgin material added, typically during a plastic compounding stage, in order to maintain the material’s integrity.  This is an established principal established over multiple industrial sectors.

Signify: still from video

This is not necessarily the final answer. The plastics industry is excited at the prospect of a chemical recovery process that de-constructs the plastic to its molecular base before rebuilding it to its original composition, promising 100% recycling and no degradation. But it still takes energy and the process involves pyrolysis, gasification, chemical depolymerization, catalytic cracking and reforming, and hydrogenation. It has a better outcome . . . but its not exactly energy and resource-free.

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There is a huge discussion going on at the moment as to the global future for plastics/petrochemicals. We’ll write more about this.

But for now – let’s concentrate on 3D printing. What do we think about that?

We asked Simon Fisher of F-Mark for his thoughts on 3D printing:

Simon Fisher

I actually love the idea, sentiment and the vision of the piece that Signify have put out. Philips (and now Signify) have led the industry in design for sustainability and a circular economy for more than 20 years. They have the will to make it succeed and a proven track record of innovation beyond many peoples imagination. We have already seen with the emergence and now dominance of solid state lighting that our industry can be disrupted; that innovation can move faster than the regulations intended to provide the checks and balances in our industry.

And we seem to be adopting a mindset of re-engaging with lighting at a human level; understanding that other metrics are in play and are, arguably, far more important than price and efficacy. These are the emotional, visual and biological effects on lighting in the environments we inhabit.

But we need to earn some lessons from the disruptive nature of SSL and understand that there is the potential for negative disruption as well as positive disruption. For instance, the pace of LED development has allowed, in many cases, new entrants to disregard the requirement for diligence, testing, quality and performance. Focussing on price and apparent efficacy. And we all know where that has led our industry in the last decade.  In a potential environment where light fittings are literally made ‘for the job’, how can we ensure quality control, regulatory compliance and lighting performance?

I’ve never shied away from the principle of disruptive activity. I like the creativity that headline grabbing statements like these activate. Let’s innovate with credibility and reliability and keep developing on a sustainable, circular trajectory, whilst being responsible and compliant.

Simon puts his finger on an important issue here, that of regulatory compliance. The fixture body is only the carrier for the important part of the luminaire – the source and accompanying electronics. It is an electrical device and we can’t afford to forget that.

We also spoke to Chris Newman, Application Development Engineer at Albis UK.
(Highly Commended in the Lighting for a Circular Economy category of the 2018 Lux Awards for their Altech ECO Polycarbonate range – mechanically recycled polycarbonate materials).

What do we need to understand about 3D printing?

3D printing is disruptive to conventional production techniques, but its not that simple. 3D printing does not always ‘scale’. It’s a process that benefits large companies with the funds to be able to set-up a 3D production line. For smaller companies, the problem of scaling-up production can be a barrier to production. It requires a step-change in investment thinking.

Albis: 3D printing filament

 Most commercially available 3D printers have a maximum size of 400x400x400mm and are made for the educational sector. Larger machines with refined technical characteristics would be sold to corporate design departments or design agencies / bureaus and would naturally incur higher purchase / running cost.   These escalating costs for emerging specialised niche markets might be exorbitant and might prevent future industrial adoption.  I’d love to be proved wrong.

Is production quality an issue?

It comes down to the size and quality of the 3D printer. The classic problem with 3D printing comes from the way that they work; ‘fuse deposition modelling’. If you think about the 3D axes, the filaments are laid down on the horizontal x:y axis and build vertically on the z axis. The potential weakness lies in the voids that can form within the layers, between the x:y and z axes. A good 3D print needs to have isotropic properties (equal strength in all planes).  This ties into the previous question, optical performance could be similarly affected.  Albis has developed light-blocking polycarbonate materials for additive manufacturing. However, any translucent / diffusion offerings might be slow to be adopted in the market.

Even If a printer is performing well one might expect a certain percentage of build failures (perhaps in common with most industrial processes) – and that could compromise the potential efficiency claims. Perhaps, a future circular waste route might be established but volumes might not be attractive to a potential partner company.

Is polycarbonate a reasonable replacement to aluminium and steel?

There are many grades available for use as durable engineering components through injection moulding and the potential for re-use – as well as recycling – is high. In common with many plastic materials, degradation can affect properties of recycled polycarbonate. Contamination, variable feedstock quality, inadequate operating control are process risks.  Failure to manage this could affect critical properties such as colour consistency or impact behaviour.  ALBIS has decades of experience in this area. We maximise recycled content whilst, in many cases, improving upon the performance of the feedstock materials so they can be used in more demanding applications such as in lighting.  This is upcycling of waste materials and compares well to the sustainability of legacy materials.

Albis: transparent and recycled polycarbonate

We need to concentrate on what we want from plastics at the end of life. Designing and building for re-use is an attractive option as an alternative to recycling.

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So we have enthusiasm for the process and an indication that the technology is in place, though financial hurdles may restrict the adoption of the 3D printing process for many companies.

But that about the fundamental question about the use of plastics? With the recent publicity into the pollution that’s being caused by waste plastics, is there a redemptive position that the plastics industry can take that can change current attitudes?

The Light Review will be returning to this issue. The answers might surprise you.

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