There is lot of buzz surrounding the fact that 3D printing is environment friendly and thus better adoption of this technology helps protect the environment. But all those claims aren’t yet scientifically proven. It is still not proven if 3D printing is really environment friendly. It has both positives and negatives and the jury will be out only after a clear pattern on adoption of 3D printing emerges. Right now, the industry is too nascent to ascertain if 3D printing is really environment friendly. In the article, we shall discuss the environmental impact of 3D printing.

Advantages of 3D printing over traditional manufacturing

(a) 3D printing help designers develop parts and products for better performance through reduction in product weight or longevity in product usage.

(b) 3D printing makes more efficient use of raw materials. 3D printing process places raw material only where it is needed.

(c) 3D printing reduces the total number of parts required for product assembly thereby shortening the supply chain.

(d) Finally, 3D printing can fabricate small batches of custom parts as and when those are required thereby reducing inventory.

3D printing and environmental impact

(a) 3D printers consume huge amount of electrical energy. Research has shown that 3D printers consume an estimated 50 to 100 times more electrical energy than injection molding to make an object of same weight.

(b) Current range of 3D printers rely heavily on plastics, not so environment friendly material. Industrial grade 3D printers that use powdered or molten polymers leave behind a substantial amount of unused raw material in the print bed.

(c) 3D printing requires materials to be heated to a very high temperature at which point the plastic releases some toxic fumes. Certain research done on 3D printing proved that 3D printers are high emitters of what are known as “ultra fine particles” or UFPs. Preliminary research has proven that continual exposure to UFPs is harmful but more research should be done to ascertain this fact.

Waste Generation in 3D printing vs. traditional manufacturing

Every product goes through a product life cycle. In traditional manufacturing, it mainly starts with mining of raw material. Mining is an environmentally devastating activity. Then comes assembly which requires transportation of products from one place to other wasting petroleum based fuel. Constructing, heating and cooling retail space takes a heavy toll on the environment as well. And the bigger waste happens when the object is thrown away.

With 3D printing technology, we can avoid all these. But 3D printing creates new kind of pollution – huge garbage generation. With the printer at our disposal and costs coming down, we tend to print on frequent basis for every small object of need and want. These objects may be used only once or twice and then thrown away. This creates huge wastage that needs to be proper recycled. With 3D printing, this entire product cycle (except the last step) can be made redundant. The supply chains become very short, no need to mine raw materials extensively and also no need for retail spaces to store the products thereby limiting the environmental damage.

The key to unleash 3D printing potential is to make the whole product life cycle green. Perhaps one of the 3D printing’s most promising environmental benefits will be the fact that computer-generated designs help improve a product’s form, function, performance and durability. For example, a 3D- printed metal airplane made of computer-designed, lightweight parts would consume less fuel during its lifetime of use.

3D printing and renewable energy

Renewable energy is key to greener manufacturing. However, most renewable energy sources today can’t provide the incessant, reliable stream of power needed to fuel mass-manufacturing operations. But with 3D printing, we need small bursts of energy only when the printer is running. If that small burst of energy can be provided through renewable energy sources then 3D printing product life cycle can be made greener.

A small manufacturing facility of the future could run several 3D printers, each making a wide variety of different products. This facility could be powered with set amount of renewable energy that would fuel scheduled start-and-stop 3D printed production runs. Someday, it would be great to see agile 3D-printing facilities that would rapidly adjust fabrication rates to the level of available renewable power, instead of other way round.