ZPC blog

Is 3D Printing Green?

In a nutshell? Yes. And no. Really, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

3D printing is gaining recognition worldwide for how it aids in the production of three-dimensional models based off of CAD drawings. It’s useful for building prototypes and architects love it for making models of buildings. It’s use is increasing every day and it’s expected to be an industry worth upwards of $4 billion by 2025. When you have NASA using it, you know this technology is here to stay.

But what implications does this have on the environment. On the surface, you would think 3D printing would be excellent for those looking to go green. After all, you could reduce manufacturing output and save energy, right? In some cases, yes. However, this is not always the case and it has become increasingly apparent that 3D printing may use more energy than some traditional manufacturing processes. Still, this doesn’t seem to be a deterrent for those investing in the ingenuity of this technology.

Also known by the of the name, additive manufacturing, 3D printers have decreased in price by as much as 90% over the past four years, according to McKinsey, a global management consulting firm. This is dramatic and can only mean one thing: more and more people are going to be using 3D printers in the near future.

What does all of this mean for the environment? Well, on the plus side it may reduce the need for raw materials as well as the amount of waste produced from manufacturing. Fewer materials and less waste means reduced carbon emissions on the whole. This information comes from the EPSRC Centre of Innovative Manufacturing in Additive Manufacturing at the University of Nottingham.

 

Additionally, the amount of raw materials required is greatly reduced. You only need to melt the amount of plastic required to make the product, so there is no waste at all. Since you’re only melting the plastic you need, you save energy. Plus, you save energy on the disposal of the waste. While positive in the sense that 3D printing does have some “green” qualities, the environmental benefits end there.

In fact, for the most part, 3D printing requires a lot of energy. In a study conducted at Loughborough University in 2008, 3D printing was shown to have a higher carbon footprint than traditional manufacturing. In some cases, it used 100 times more energy to melt plastic, if you can believe it. Yikes! Why so power hungry? 3D printing uses high powered heating elements or lights to cure resin. So, it has to use a lot of energy in order to make just one item. With traditional manufacturing, a lot of items are being made at once, which means the cost of energy use per item goes down dramatically.

Since many items made using 3D printing are plastic-based, they can be recycled, which is good for the environment. However, the initial creation of plastic is not environmentally friendly and it is not biodegradable when it goes in the landfill. Again, not very green. Recycled plastic and degrades overtime and isn’t as strong, so it can’t be used in actual products many times over. However it can be used in models. So if you’re simply printing out prototypes for models of products, 3D printing is likely to have less of an impact on the environment then traditional modeling.

3D printing has a long ways to go in terms of becoming more environmentally friendly. However, it is a promising technology in this regard. It should be exciting to see how it develops with eco-consciousness in mind.

Image source: Shapeways