Is 3D Printing Green? Could It Be Green?

By on September 26th, 2018 in Ideas

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 3D printing is not necessarily a sustainable process [Source: Pixabay]
3D printing is not necessarily a sustainable process [Source: Pixabay]

I’m reading a piece on the greenness of 3D printing and realized there is so much more to the sustainability picture of 3D printing.

The excellent piece, “It’s too soon to call 3D printing a green technology” by The Conversation, proposes that the so-called green qualities of 3D printing are overplayed. I tend to agree with this, although there is a lot more to consider.

The green quality comes from a naive notion that 3D printers would somehow enable local production of parts and complete objects, and this would negate or reduce the need for large-scale transportation of products.

At first glance this might seem to be a reasonable proposition, but in fact it really won’t be true for a number of reasons:

  • The now relatively widespread desktop 3D printers are not capable of 3D printing complete functional objects nor even in the appropriate materials

  • Manufacturers have no secure means to deliver digital designs to such devices, nor any financial incentive to do so

  • No proper legal frameworks exist to allow a company to have users produce their own versions of products to prevent liability nightmares

And there’s more reasons. As a result, desktop 3D printing is now largely used by hobbyists and certain professionals for prototyping.

So 3D printing isn’t green?

I think it could be – but isn’t inherently “green”. A 3D printer does not instantly mean its use is environmentally sustainable.

The authors of The Conversation piece explore many details of 3D printing through their examination of multiple research papers in an effort to understand the sustainability of 3D printing.

They found, for example, that low volume 3D printing could save energy and effort:

“Additive manufacturing is especially useful for making custom parts and small batches of complex objects at less cost than conventional manufacturing, which often requires time-consuming and expensive preparation of production equipment.”

But at the same time they found many reasons why 3D printing might not be so green:

“Another concern is that on-demand production and endless customization could lead to dramatic increases in throw-away consumer products, or ‘crapjects,’ as some commentators refer to them. Producing shoes, costume jewelry or household goods in varied colors or designs on demand could take ‘fast fashion’ to a whole new level.”

There were arguments for and against sustainability, but I think there is a higher level to view this discussion.

I think that 3D printers are merely one cog in a massively complex system of product development, supply chains, distribution, product usage and product disposal.

Each of those stages could be addressed by 3D printing in good ways or bad. You might be able to 3D print a part locally and avoid transportation costs, but at the same time 3D printing might enable a product designer to produce 100 prototypes instead of the three or four they’d otherwise do.

So far, use of 3D printing has not focused on sustainability except as a specific goal of particular projects. Machines are not necessarily designed to be sustainable, and workflows are the same. At this point the systems and processes mentioned above are generally at the point of introducing 3D printing into their systems and have not yet understood its potential for sustainability.

Until sustainability is a clear and primary objective, we likely will not see major sustainability gains from use of 3D printing.

Via The Conversation

By Kerry Stevenson

Kerry Stevenson, aka "General Fabb" has written over 8,000 stories on 3D printing at Fabbaloo since he launched the venture in 2007, with an intention to promote and grow the incredible technology of 3D printing across the world. So far, it seems to be working!