Will 3D Printing Improve Sustainability?

Professor Plastics

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A young girl watches as a 3D printer prints an object

Many news articles about 3-D printing suggest that a new paradigm of “distributed manufacturing” is imminent, in which people all over the world will make stuff they need in or close to their homes.

This shift reportedly can reduce the environmental footprint resulting from manufacturing. The thinking is: If we make something ourselves or nearby rather than a long way away, we won’t have to ship it across the world. In addition, 3-D printing is additive manufacturing—that is, instead of typical manufacturing that whittles away at a piece of material to make a product, resulting in significant waste, 3-D printing simply adds layer upon layer to create products, resulting in very little waste.

Would that be better for the environment?

Well, I suspect we’ll have to wait a few years for a clear answer to that question because 3-D printing is in its infancy. Regardless the breathless predictions of rapid change, 3-D printing today accounts for an extremely small sliver of manufacturing output. So it’s sort of difficult to measure its future environmental impacts versus present traditional manufacturing. That would be kind of like trying to measure the future impact of all those wearable fitness trackers on obesity. The technology is just too new.

Still … it’s an interesting topic, so let’s take a look at what some “experts” are saying about the promise of 3-D printing and its potential contributions to sustainability.

A quick background for those unfamiliar with this sort-of-newish technology …

A 3-D printer functions sort of like an ink jet printer—except instead of using ink to print a flat image on paper, it typically uses plastics or some other materials to build an object, layer upon layer in three-dimensions. Computer aided design (CAD) software or a 3-D scan enables the printer to precisely manipulate the plastics.

The plastics acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), polylactic acid (PLA), and nylon were some of the first materials used in 3-D printing, and they’re still the most prevalent. Analysts expect plastics to continue to be the primary materials (typically called filament) used in home 3-D printing.

Depending on the type of plastic or material used, a 3-D printer can make furniture, medical and dental implants, automotive parts, footwear, jewelry, construction materials—the possibilities seem endless. Plus, the printers can be mobile—they can be deployed on site to build components of a house or to rapidly create a lifesaving device on the battlefield.

Experts? Studies? Turns out there just are not that many experts—or a comprehensive study that I’m aware of. But here are some sources of info …

Researchers at Michigan Technology University determined in 2012 that producing a product—a plastic juicer—with a 3-D printer uses less energy than “conventional large-scale production overseas.” A 2013 study by the same authors looked at three plastic products manufactured conventionally and using 3-D printers. The authors found that 3-D printing reduced energy demand and emissions from manufacturing: “Overall, the results indicate that distributed manufacturing using open-source 3-D printers has the potential to have a lower environmental impact than conventional manufacturing for a variety of products.”

(One of the researchers also did an economic analysis and found that the average U.S. family could save money by making common household goods with a 3-D printer. Up to $2,000 per year. Hmm … now I might just get one of these printers!)

OK, two studies pointing to less energy use, fewer emissions … What else?

Another study: a sustainable design researcher compared two types of 3-D printers to typical manufacturing (milling) based on methodologies that compare environmental impacts over the life of a product. The researcher determined that one type of 3-D printer (such as a RepRap or Makerbot) performs better—meaning it had lower environmental impacts—than milling while another type did not.

OK, so some 3-D printers seem to have an edge.

Investment firms certainly seem interested, often for reasons related to the environment. The head of one investment firm points to decreased costs and time to create prototypes for new parts and products, along with the associated reduction in fuel use and emissions. He notes, for example, that a car company has “dramatically reduced production time and costs by using 3-D printing to shave months off development for parts, accessories and engine designs.”

Frankly, that’s what most 3-D printers are used for these days: prototypes. It likely will take a few years before 3-D printing is used more for actually manufacturing parts and products than prototypes. The investment firm head believes that the localization of manufacturing could significantly reduce environmental impacts of transporting plastic car parts and other finished goods all over the world.

OK, so companies are investing in 3-D printing, partially for environmental reasons.

This means 3-D printing is better for the environment, right?

Not so fast, according to a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Alternative Futures who says, “the hype about 3-D printing extends to its environmental impacts. Articles portray 3-D printing as environmentally superior to conventional manufacturing despite the fact that there have been no comprehensive studies to demonstrate that superiority.

That’s precisely my point: it’s too early to tell what impact 3-D printing will have, particularly related to sustainability. There are too many variables, and nobody knows how 3-D printing will play out and evolve.

(If you’re really interested in this topic, take a few moments to read the Senior Fellow’s piece, published by the Environmental Law Center. It raises all sorts of questions that have yet to be answered. Sort of like my classes …)

So …

Like the steam engine years ago and the Internet today, 3-D printing is a disruptive technology whose impacts cannot fully be predicted. But few see it as a fading fad. And with Apple, Google, and Amazon showing increasing interest, we could expect some advances soon. We’re just not sure what.

One thing I will predict, though: the broad use of recycled plastics in 3-D printing. One of the Michigan Tech researchers who wrote the first two reports above also looked at “Recyclebots” that can utilize used plastics to create new filaments. One of the conclusions: “in-home recycling could reduce cost and greenhouse gas emissions associated with waste collection and transportation as well as the environmental impact of manufacturing custom plastic parts.” Cool.

I just can’t wait for the future.

For more info on 3-D printing and plastics, see my previous articles on 3-D printing for manufacturing and in-home use.

For more info on the potential of 3-D printing, check out McKinsey’s recent insights.

Found another study on 3-D printing and sustainability (and plastics)? Leave a note in the comments section below.