What Are the Environmental Impacts of 3D Printing?

 Making the world a bit greener

Making the world a bit greener

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, may come to change the world of manufacturing.

It’s currently used for creating prototypes, custom items and small batches of items, along with its hobbyist uses, but it's becoming continuously more advanced and affordable.

This new technology is exciting for the manufacturing world, but could it also help us solve our environmental woes? Here are some attributes of 3D printing and how it could impact the environment in the future:

Higher Energy Use

Additive manufacturing certainly has potential in the environmental realm, but we’re not quite there yet. The main reason? 3D printing uses a lot of energy.

We need more research in this area, but one study found that 3D printers utilizing heat or lasers use 50 to 100 times more electricity than traditional production methods to make an object of equal weight.

Since many countries still generate most of their electricity from fossil fuel sources, this can have a significant impact on the environment.

Less Material

Several other attributes of additive manufacturing could compensate, at least in part, for its high energy consumption. 3D printers invariably use less material than traditional manufacturing methods. 3D printing processes allow you to melt/fuse/bind/sinter only the amount of plastic/metal/ceramic you need to produce a part.

This method differs from traditional subtractive manufacturing where you often must cut away the excess material instead of adding only the necessary material as is done in 3D printing. Some argue that this difference means that 3D printing actually uses a comparable amount of or less energy than other methods, because you don't need to use energy to produce that extra material and also remove it when subtractive processes take place.

Lower Distribution Emissions

An environmental benefit of 3D printing is the ability to print items from anywhere, even in a store or in your home. This theoretically could significantly reduce the need to transport items and therefore lowers the emissions associated with that transportation.

3D-printed products can also be up to 50 percent lighter than those produced with standard methods by using "sparse interior structures" that are impossible to produce using alternative manufacturing methods. This means these 3D printed parts would require less energy to transport. Even the very aircraft and vehicles performing the transportation could be 3D printed themselves, resulting in lighter vehicles that don’t need as much energy to operate.

The benefit of decreased distribution is currently limited by the fact that 3D printing isn't widely used for mass-production, so the emission decreases happen on a smaller scale. That could change, however, as 3D printing technology improves and usage becomes more widespread.

Recyclable Materials

3D-printed objects are typically made of thermoplastic, which, while not the greenest material, can often be recycled. There are currently several machines on the market that recycle thermoplastics — such as the material from failed prototypes — for use in 3D printers.

This recycled plastic, though, tends to become more brittle the more you recycle it, which may make users hesitant to try it. The industry is working on improving recycling technologies.

Eco-Friendly Materials

Another road to more environmentally-friendly 3D printing practices has also recently emerged. It involves the use of biodegradable and renewable plant-based sources, as opposed to traditional petroleum-based materials.

One of the two main plastics used in 3D printing comes from corn. Polylactic acid or PLA is biodegradable, renewable, non-toxic and creates little waste, which has made it a popular choice in the industry. While PLA is unsuitable for many applications due to its rather low melt temperature, companies are developing even batter renewable materials. 

Engineers at MIT have also recently developed a way to use cellulose as an alternative 3D printing material that they believe could be stronger and more economical than today’s standard petroleum-based materials. The researchers used cellulose acetate, added an optional sodium hydroxide treatment for extra strength and used a dye with antimicrobial, which may make this material of particular interest to the food and health sectors.

Can 3D Printing Become Greener?

Use 3D printing continues to grow, but will these biodegradable materials also grow? It's hard to say, but if they work as well as researchers believe they will, it stands to reason that 3D printing could eventually implement greener methods. Researchers will undoubtedly also improve these materials and come up with new ones going forward.

We will also see continued innovations in the energy consumption, material efficiency, effectiveness and scalability of 3D printers in the near future. We’ll have to wait and see just how eco-friendly these advancements make the technology. We have a long way to go, but 3D printing may turn out to be critically important in creating a more sustainable manufacturing industry.

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