A resurgence in popularity for vinyl music coincided with the democratization of 3D printing technologies.
But now, pandemic fluctuations in supply and demand are pointing out a fact music enthusiasts don’t want to hear: music production and consumption are unsustainable.
However, 3D printing is also changing the music industry in a variety of ways. With additive manufacturing tech in homes and businesses, innovations in musical sustainability have been quietly emerging in the marketplace. These 3D-printed tools could offer sustainably-sourced music to the environmentally-savvy consumer through cleanly produced instruments and substitutes for plastic-based vinyl.
3D printing might just play an important role in the future of the music industry. Here’s what this technology means for any music lover who cares about their environmental impact.
How Supply Chain and Sustainability Problems Challenge Music Consumers
Throughout the 20th and 21st Centuries, being an ethical consumer of music has been a challenge. That’s because the industry has been plagued by issues from pirating to unsustainable production practices.
The original Napster came along with the World Wide Web and made more accessible — but often at the expense of artists’ creative licenses. Now, streaming services make music accessible again — but the cost is a huge carbon footprint from server farms as those services pump music onto mobile devices and personal computers. Streaming music has been found to produce between 200-350 million kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions.
Now, COVID-era supply chain challenges make another issue painfully clear: the music industry suffers from sustainability problems on all sides.
On one hand, artists rely more than ever on sales from the revitalized vinyl industry, which has retaken its place as one of consumers’ top choices for music consumption. Nearly one-in-five LPs purchased in 2020 was on vinyl, a 10% gain over the previous year. But vinyl isn’t exactly sustainable. Far from it, in fact. It’s made out of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a plastic polymer that will not biodegrade and causes air pollution when burned.
The surge in demand for vinyl records when the first COVID-19-induced shutdowns began caused many consumers and producers to realize another harsh fact about the industry: much of the vinyl production takes place in other countries. This can make for supply chain headaches—especially during a global pandemic. That brings us to now.
With half a million copies of Adele’s 30 on the presses, other artists are struggling to find factories with available resources — let alone get the records out on time for the album’s launch. In the meantime, factories don’t want to ramp up capacity to accommodate what might be a pandemic trend in surging vinyl demands. What we’re left with is a bottlenecked industry that further limits the money artists can make.
All these challenges showcase the unsustainability of an industry dependent on manufacturing materials and processes that are both outdated and environmentally unfriendly. This brings us to the role 3D printing stands to play in making the music industry more sustainable.
The Role of 3D Printing in Sustainable Music Products
3D printing by nature makes it possible for manufacturers to improve their efficiency and reduce waste. That’s because predesigning a product digitally, then building it via additive manufacturing, adds a level of precision no other fabrication system can quite match. But are 3D-printed parts and products really more sustainable than their traditionally made counterparts?
That’s a big question, and one dependent on the part, product, and industry. In music, however, 3D printing has enormous potential to revolutionize manufacturing practices to make for a more sustainable — and equitable — world. This potential exists both in regards to manufacturing as well as helping to solve the industry’s monetization problems.
Artists, musicians, and additive manufacturing engineers are producing incredible and sustainable musical products all the time. In one instance, Olaf Diegel produced this awesome “Greenaxe” electric guitar using recycled waste sawdust, wood binder, and a 3D printer. By using these materials, Diegel cut overhead material costs to a bare minimum. The implication of beautiful, expertly-crafted instruments created with recycled materials is a world in which music is more affordable and accessible without relying on unsustainable processes.
Then, there’s the work of Dutch collaborators to produce Green Vinyl Records, their endeavor’s namesake and goal. By replacing traditional plastics with eco-friendly materials, Green Vinyl Records creates guilt-free records with a familiar feel and sound. They also claim their process saves 60% on energy consumption and speeds the manufacturing process. This sounds like the perfect solution to the supply chain problems of 2021.
3D printing makes using alternative materials simpler through the additive process. Printing vinyl substitutes in this fashion could help solve the issues musicians are having with sourcing their album production overseas, where fossil-fuel-based products will be used. While this may require additional technological capabilities in terms of print resolution, it may be achievable in the future. In turn, they can still collect higher revenues from vinyl sales, a necessity since recording artists are often underpaid by streaming services.
Instead, the future of sustainable music is in 3D-printed records that retain the sound, feel, and collectibility of our music passions. Materials engineers will be fundamental to this process, as their expertise will be needed in determining performance, identifying issues, and running simulations. We are at the forefront of additive manufacturing innovation in the music industry, and these professionals will help take us further into a cleaner, more musical society.
How 3D Printing and Music Make the World More Sustainable
Right now, 3D printing in music products isn’t all that common. But, naturally, 3D printing companies will evolve to fill a niche that has long been in demand. Music should be more sustainable and that means bringing in 3D printers.
If an Inkjet printer can be made to produce synthetic human organs — as proven by Dr. Anthony Atala’s work — then we might eventually use 3D printers to create instruments and records that are as good for the environment as they are for us. It starts with material changes and waste reduction. Then, maybe someday, we’ll have sustainably-sourced vinyl alternatives able to be printed out on record-store 3D printers, perhaps even with a contribution from a local artist.
The future of music is sustainable. These are just some of the ways 3D printing can help us get there.