3D Printing: Asking the Environmental Question

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.

(Source: MakerBot)

(Source: MakerBot)

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?

9 comments on “3D Printing: Asking the Environmental Question

  1. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    April 21, 2014

    This reminds me that so much of what we do has broader reaching implications than we first consider. Does anybody know of a green calculator that let's you weigh the various factors to figure out what's overall best for the world?

  2. SunitaT
    April 22, 2014

    Every company, before launching a new product has to do an Environmental Impact Assessment of their product and forward it to the Environmental Agency concerned. Unless the design of the product doesn't have a green “go” from the Environment Board, the product cannot be launched into the market. Same is with 3D printers. Companies making the printers have to find out better ways to making 3D printing possible without creating environmental hazards.

  3. SunitaT
    April 22, 2014

    @Rich: If not that person concerned, then someone else with enough power and influence. Environmental Impacts have to be dealt with, and without a proper group of educated people culturing with various products and their environmental impacts, such deductions cannot be made easily.

  4. SunitaT
    April 22, 2014

    @Rich: 3D printing is amazing. You never know future food products may be 3D printed, and costs of production may go down.

  5. prabhakar_deosthali
    April 22, 2014

    What if the consummables used in the 3D printer is the plastic waste itself?


    At one of the local trade shows here in India , I saw a company  whcih prepares the plastic conummable wire required for 3D printing from the plastic waste.


    They showed the demo where the plastic waste was being converted to the suitable wire to be used in 3D printing.


    I think nothing can be greener than this

  6. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    April 22, 2014

    @Rich, it's not an easy calculation for sure. The other gating factor is that it has to be done every single time… and that can be exhausting. There's no single right answer that can be arrived at and used on an ongoing basis.

  7. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    April 22, 2014

    @Prabhakar, this sounds like a  promising approach.. . Reuse is always a great option. Do you remember which printer maker it was?

  8. Eldredge
    April 22, 2014

    @tirlapur – 3D printing of food products has already been done. I've seen it on several episodes of Star Trek.  🙂

  9. Eldredge
    April 22, 2014

    @prabhakar – that's a good point. If #d printing can use recycled material, that should gain some favor.

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