Wednesday, March 20, 2013
Despite being a new technology (at a mere twenty years old), 3D printing has already been hailed as revolutionary and the coming of a "second industrial revolution." The technology is already being prepared for use in space, with 3D printers to be launched into orbit, where they will assemble space station and spacecraft parts without the need for costly fuels to launch them fully assembled into space. Frequently listed among the many advantages of 3D printing is the phrase, "eco-friendly." But are 3D printers really as green and sustainable as they claim?
First, a quick primer on the technology itself. 3D printing is a technology that uses digital CAD models and converts them into three-dimensional objects. Often used for rapid prototyping, 3D printed objects can be made out of waste materials, like recycled glass or plastic. If the recycled prototype works as designed, the object can be mass-produced with those same materials. The implication is clear: not only can difficult-to-use waste materials like waste glass be used to make 3D printed prototypes, they can also be once again put to practical use — a model for "eco-friendliness" if ever there was one.
The biggest advantage of 3D printing lies in its independence from traditional manufacturing methods. Many 3D printers are suitable for home or small office use, reducing the need for large warehouses and the pollution / energy footprints that come with them. Similarly, the smaller scale of 3D printing bypasses the need for large, power-hungry production facilities that use massive amounts of resources. 3D printing still requires raw materials and electricity to operate, of course, but achieving a sustainable model of manufacturing becomes much simpler at 3D printing's smaller scale. Since there is less need to transport raw materials, this also means lower carbon emissions and pollution as the technology gains in popularity.
3D printing may soon be changing how we think about how everything is manufactured. Next-generation companies such as WikiHouse are already working on a construction system that would allow anyone to "print" wooden construction materials and build a pre-fabricated home completely out of 3D printed materials — reducing or eliminating much of the waste and cost associated with a traditionally constructed home.
Despite the bright future 3D printing seems to paint, there are some concerns that once the technology has proliferated everywhere, the ease with which consumers can print objects may lead to a negative impact on the environment. The possibility exists that lowering the bar to manufacturing may lead to "impulse printing" and conspicuous consumption, leading to wasteful and unnecessary use of resources. This is not so much a flaw in the technology itself as much as a matter of responsible use and attitude. Even 3D printed objects, eco-friendly as they might be, still use resources, and wasteful manufacturing on a micro scale is no more "green" than it is on a macro scale.
Ultimately, the question of sustainability comes back to recycling. If home users of 3D printing can just "print off" new utensils, toys, or even appliances at their home without having to get in their car and drive to the store to purchase a mass-produced product, doesn't that save on some resources in the long run? Certainly. But if those same users just toss the items into the landfill when they're finished, that's less "green" than if those utensils, toys or appliances are re-recycled so they can be used again.
No technology is perfect, and the replicators of Star Trek will have to wait a few more decades. But the answer to "just how green is 3D printing?" A resounding "very."
Raymond Schwartz is the leading technical analyst at online printercartridge shop, PrinterInks.com; stocking ink cartridges from Dell, HP, Brother, Samsung as well as a range of other top printer brands.