Technology to progress is like lighter fluid to the bonfire, and in this instance we did start the fire, but few leaps of advancement exemplify this more than 3d printing, which — has the potential to truly revitalize the planet.
As 3D printing becomes mainstream, so too does the hope that it can accelerate efficiency gains, reduce costs and progress sustainability more than ever before.
Is 3D printing sustainable?
According to a European Commission study, by 2050 3D printing (also referred to as ‘“additive manufacturing”) could save up to 90% of the raw materials required for manufacturing.
This is one of the greatest advantages of 3D printing because a decrease in raw material use means a proportionate decrease in extraction of natural resources, emissions generated from raw materials sourcing and processing (by as much as half!), and of course, waste.
These stats come as welcome news for any enterprise weighing the economic and environmental pros of 3D printing.
Additive manufacturing is set to radically change the world of construction, manufacturing, fashion, and even medicine.
But how is 3D printing beneficial to the environment? How will it help progress sustainability initiatives for individuals, businesses, and the environment alike?
Let’s explore some 3D printing benefits and concerns, along with the many 3D printing innovations with the potential to propel environmental sustainability forward.
Exploring 3D Printing Sustainability Advantages and Issues:
1. What Is 3D printing?
The concept of 3D printing was first introduced in the 1980s in Japan by Dr. Hideo Kodama of the Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute.
Aiming to develop a system for rapid prototyping, he developed a layer-by-layer method of material manufacturing using photosensitive resin polymerized with UV light.
Over thirty years later, 3D printing is now one of the most innovative processes for fabrication of everything, including medical equipment, prosthetics, consumer products, automotive parts, and homes and building components, and even food.
How Does 3D Printing Work?
3D printing is an additive manufacturing process—hence its more technical alias—whereby a three-dimensional object is created layer by layer via a machine using a computer-generated file.
3D printing is seen as a more environmentally-friendly solution to manufacturing, because most plastic and metal manufacturing is subtractive, meaning finished products are whittled away from a larger block by machines, leaving plenty of landfill-bound waste behind.
CNC machining, milling, and laser cutting are three of the most wasteful examples of subtractive manufacturing.
With 3D printing, parts are added or rather “printed” layer by layer, so only the exact amount of material required is used to produce an item. In this way, 3D printing can be seen as a more sustainable manufacturing solution.
Are The Materials For 3D Printing Eco-Friendly?
3D printing using eco-friendly materials is possible, but it’s not a given.
This is because 3D printing resin can be as varied as the materials that can be 3D printed themselves—such as plastic, bioplastic, concrete, and metal—all of which vary drastically in sustainability.
Thermoplastic polymer is a popular choice for its durability. However, it is not biodegradable and still often demands virgin petrochemicals to create.
Fortunately, recycled materials and other eco-friendly 3d printing resins are on the rise, which supports the sustainability of 3D printing.
PLA (polylactic acid), a plant-based bioplastic made from corn or sugarcane, is an increasingly popular alternative to thermoplastic polymer.
While PLA is often marketed as a sustainable and biodegradable plastic alternative (and to the extent that it breaks down much faster than petroleum based plastics), it is still plastic and will break down only in proper environments and not without leaving microplastic residue.
Does that mean it’s not an eco-friendly 3d printing filament?
The answer depends on your definition of “eco-friendly”. It’s certainly a step up from traditional thermoplastics, but it’s still an imperfect argument of sustainability for 3D printing.
The good news is that as the industry develops and evolves, there is an uptick in interest for recycled materials.
A number of 3D printing machines available today can recycle thermoplastics and integrate waste materials from failed prototypes. To use this, the plastic is carefully selected, cleaned and shredded into small pieces. After the material goes through an extruder, the new filament reappears. That’s in addition to companies offering recycled material filament for 3D printers, such as Prusament, Closed Loop Plastics, FormFutura, and Kimya.
2. How Can 3D Printing Progress Sustainability?
Is 3D printing eco-friendly—either in practice or application? How does it support sustainability?
While improvements can be (and are being) made to 3D printing sustainability, a number of its applications and potential applications invariably progress sustainability.
3D printing sustainability projects span a wide array of sectors, and demonstrate the great potential that this manufacturing method holds for future environmentally friendly solutions.
Similar to the way the Internet launched a new era of digital content creation that reinvented the music, publishing, and film industries, the 3D printing process suggests dramatic change to a whole new set of sectors.
The hope is that it will improve efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and sustainability from historical approaches to building and manufacturing.
The following are a few noteworthy examples of organizations providing 3D printing eco-friendly applications:
Regenerating Marine Ecosystems:
Reef Arabia is an artificial reef company that 3D prints marine-grade sandstone coral to plant in the ocean, which helps to regenerate depleted coral reefs.
They have been printing and replanting reefs since 2012, with innovations constantly being developed.
Coral researchers can now 3D print a calcium carbonate reef skeleton, the naturally occurring material coral is made from.
Pandemic-induced supply chain shortages—specifically of microchips used in vehicles—gave form to an interesting concept: 3D printed microchips.
While we have yet to see the full development of this, the development by IBM of microchip prototyping via 3D printing technology points to a potentially revolutionary way to develop computer parts without the need to extract huge quantities of minerals and metals from the Earth.
It also has the potential to bring semiconductor construction back to US soil, creating jobs and reducing current reliance on “potentially hostile nations”.
A key 3D printing advantage is its suitability for producing spare parts, allowing it to positively aid disaster-stricken communities in efficiently rebuilding infrastructure. For example, tech-based NGO Field Ready 3D-printed water pipe fittings and washers on the fly in response to the devastating 2015 earthquake in Nepal.
3. Sustainability In 3D Printing For Business
There are a number of noteworthy organizations and companies using 3D printing technology to create more sustainable products and experiences to not only help their businesses, but also the world.
These examples offer us exciting insight into the sustainability benefits of 3D printing for businesses:
- It helps manufacturing companies design and build more efficiently than traditional manufacturing processes, which reduces its negative environmental impact.
- Additive manufacturing means less waste and, in time, may rely mostly on environmentally friendly materials.
- Spare parts can easily be produced if something needs to be repaired, promoting circularity.
- Products, parts, and prototypes can be made locally, reducing the carbon footprint of shipping and energy use.
- It eliminates the demand for a huge inventory of products (much of which ends up as wasted deadstock) since they can be printed on an as-needed basis.
- 3D printing streamlines manufacturing processes, which reduces labor, equipment needed, and energy consumption.
- It reduces the size and noise of factories, which means fewer carbon emissions.
Let’s look at some specific sectors in which the sustainability of 3D printing manufacturing is improving a business’ impact and carbon footprint:
One of the most exciting frontiers for sustainability and 3D printing is its disruption of traditional building design and construction approaches.
Is 3D printing houses sustainable?
Yes! From 3D printed walls to concrete, additive manufacturing has tons of sustainable building applications and advantages.
3D printing shortens supply chains and cuts down on the massive carbon footprint of shipping large, heavy materials utilized by the construction industry.
For example, sustainable construction and engineering giant Arup 3D-prints specialty steel parts on location wherever it’s needed, as opposed to having a central production plant that ships the products around the world.
It also mitigates waste material. This is significant, given the current construction models estimate a 30% wastage of all building materials on any given construction site.
In 2018, demolition and construction projects loaded U.S. landfills with a whopping 600 million tons of material waste.
Decreasing prices of 3D printers means a potential solution to skyrocketing housing costs and sweeping housing inequality across the US.
The first ever 3D-printed house, built in Austin in 2018, was built in less than 24 hours for less than $10,000.
Today, Chinese company WinSun sells 3D printed homes that cost under $5000 to build using eco-friendly 3D printing filament made from recycled fiberglass, steel, cement, binder, and rubble.
The company has already built homes in China and Saudi Arabia—including the world’s tallest 3D printed building—with plans to expand to more than twenty other countries.
When 3D printing concrete, sustainability is achieved through reduced chemical reliance.
In a concrete nutshell, 3D printed geopolymer and alkali-activated materials harden naturally without additional chemical accelerators.
3D printing technology for the fashion industry can include creating prototypes and tools for manufacturing, increase customization options, and advance sustainability through its waste reduction.
Luxury fashion behemoth Chanel is just one example of a brand experimenting with 3D printing technologies to further innovate within the fashion world.
Perhaps the most radically transformed by 3D printing technologies, the medical industry has benefited tremendously from the ability to fabricate cutting-edge and otherwise hard-to-secure medical products—particularly in developing or underserved nations.
iLab Haiti, for instance, is 3D printing their way to equal medical access for the country.
US and UK hospitals now 3D print customized replacement hips and other synthetic joints and prosthetics, while bio-printing startups like Organovo can 3D print human cells and tissue to reproduce body parts.
Don’t feel like making dinner after a long day at the office?
3D print it instead!
In truth, the process isn’t quite that simple and the ingredient limitations of 3D printing means much is still unknown about how 3D printing is changing food sustainability.
However, it has been used to successfully create unique food formulations for special dietary needs and customized medical or nutritional supplements.
Will 3D printers replace farmers, though?
Not likely. Not every type of food can be 3D printed, and there are valid “nature knows best” arguments when it comes to food systems, but it will be interesting to see how this tasty tech evolves.
Everyone from the aviation industry to NASA to shoe companies like Feetz are creating customized items for projects and consumers alike.
3D printing gives businesses and organizations the ability to custom create objects and items, which are made efficiently and cost-effectively.
4. Sustainability In 3D Printing For Consumers
3D printing not only benefits enterprises, but everyday people—especially the maker culture and the creative renaissance 3D printing encourages.
The “maker movement” is a global community of engineers, artists, tinkerers, entrepreneurs and anyone else passionate about the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) culture.
Previously, traditional design tools were difficult, time-consuming, and often expensive to learn. An engineer or designer would spend years in school learning to make the most basic 3D models.
Today, this has radically changed. Tools are free, easy to use, and readily available for anyone to get started designing and building. In addition to that, the open source community online has thousands of free templates and designs available for download to 3D print.
With a little practice and minimal equipment, anyone with a web browser can 3D print.
Don’t have a 3D printer?
No problem. Public 3D printing companies allow anyone anywhere to upload their 3D model file, choose the material, and receive a 3D printed prototype delivered right to their door.
The ease of this has led to what many call a “creative renaissance,” as it becomes easier and more accessible for inventors and creatives to transform an idea or prototype into reality.
5. 3D Printing Sustainability Issues
With all the 3D printing technology progress, it seems hopeful that it can become an environmentally friendly approach to traditional manufacturing processes.
But is 3D printing eco-friendly?
Or is 3d printing bad for the environment?
Currently, the answer to both is not quite.
While the applications of 3D printing are exciting, they unfortunately don’t erase the inherent (and significant) environmental impact of 3D printing.
The most obvious 3D printing limitation is its current reliance on virgin plastics, though as we’ve seen, sustainable smart technology exists to remedy this downside if companies are willing to make more sustainable material choices.
Regardless, 3D printing methods are energy intensive (though still significantly less so than CNC machining) and sometimes involve toxic emissions.
Because filaments must be heated to a high temperature to build into objects with 3D printers, one solution to the huge amount of energy consumed during printing lies in the materials used. By using more environmentally friendly materials with a low-temperature threshold, energy consumption can be decreased.
Additionally, using 3D printing machines that have the ability to print multiple components at the same time can reduce energy usage and carbon emissions.
In terms of harmful emissions, 3D printing creates volatile organic compounds or VOCs, which the EPA considers a key cause of harmful indoor air pollution.
Material uses, temperature of machinery, filament color, the amount of heat used on the build plate, and printer model can all affect the degree to which VOCs are released. In addition to VOCs, 3D printing may emit particulate matter, gaseous materials, or nanoparticles that potentially pose some health risks.
Closing Thoughts On 3D Printing Sustainability
The never-ending boom of global human invention and manufacturing highlights the need to develop more sustainable development solutions.
3D printing may just be that solution—provided we can achieve a wide scale, favorable balance between its sustainable applications and the inherent environmental impact of 3D printing.
There are both human and environmental benefits of 3D printing, largely revolving around the potential to significantly reduce energy use, waste, production costs, carbon emissions, and impacts of shipping.
Given the adolescence of this tech, 3D printing will likely continue to become increasingly green. As more eco-friendly 3D printing material advancements are made and new energy-saving 3D printing machines are developed, it can positively and significantly impact sustainability initiatives worldwide.
As the phrase goes, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”
3D printing harnesses the spirit of this with its potential for humans to create a sustainable future of medicine, fashion, construction, manufacturing, housing, and more.
3D printing indicates all of these sectors should get prepared for massive change in the form of more cost-effective, sustainable, and efficient building and manufacturing solutions.