Though 3D printing is winning attention among designers and manufacturers alike, you have to wonder what the environmental implications might be.
Hold on. I know what you're going to say. The buzz around 3D printing points to all sorts of “Oh, happy day” scenarios.
As IBM said in a Global Business Services report last summer, 3D or additive manufacturing is likely to reduce material waste, lower transportation costs, and pave the way for a trifold win for the electronics industry: more efficient design, lighter products, and shorter product design cycles.
All these things seem great, and when the case is proven out, 3D printing will change the way design houses, OEMs, and supply chain professionals think and act. However, let's not ignore some of the peskier aspects of 3D-related engineering, prototyping, supply chain, logistics, and production activities. When you really dig into the question of 3D printing, a few things stand out, particularly when it comes to the near-term environmental impact.
“Not all printable materials are bio-degradable,” IBM says in the report. It has been widely reported that 3D printers and related products depend on plastic filaments, much of which is wasted during the printing process and will end up piling up in landfills globally.
However, IBM says this will change in the near future. “While not all materials can be 3D printed, about 30 industrial plastics, resins, metals and bio-materials are supported today, with conductive, dielectric materials and green polymers expected to be printable in ten years.”
Further, 3D printers don't have small carbon footprints. The University of California, Berkeley, reported last month on a study by Jeremy Faludi, a sustainable design strategist and mechanical engineering Ph.D. candidate. Faludi found that 3D printers “can exert impacts on the environment comparable to — or greater than — those of standard manufacturing. It all depends on what you're making and the kind of printer you're using to make it.”
These devices also use more power than traditional machines, and the printing processes don't get a perfect thumbs up on the green-friendly scale, either. As Fast Company reported in January, it takes a lot of energy to keep the printers running and the plastic materials melted. “For a design shop that keeps 3-D printers running throughout the day, each piece printed out has a big carbon footprint.”
At the end of the day, the potential upside of 3D printing will probably beat down these possible annoyances. But let's not be naïve and say it comes without a price. Somewhere down the road, someone — whether it's from a green consumer or the head of corporate social responsibility — will ask about the 3D vs. standard manufacturing tradeoffs. And someone in the supply chain will have to answer the question. What will your response be?