I am fascinated by the idea of 3D printing. I read about it frequently in the online press and see it in action on the TV show “Grey’s Anatomy.” I have seen articles about 3D printed pizza, human tissues, works of art and plastic children’s toys. It seems straight out of a science fiction novel or episode of Star Trek, but 3D printing is a reality today that is poised to become more mainstream over the next few years to a decade.
What is 3D printing and how does it work? According to 3DPrinting.com, it is “a process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file. The creation of a 3D printed object is achieved using additive processes. In an additive process an object is created by laying down successive layers of material until the entire object is created. Each of these layers can be seen as a thinly sliced horizontal cross-section of the eventual object.” Each 3D printer has a 3D modeling program that takes the digital design and turns it into a real-life object. The applications for 3D printing are nearly limitless. 3D printed objects can fit into the realms of architecture, healthcare, entertainment, manufacturing and so much more.
Of particular interest to me are the conservation and sustainability aspects of 3D printing. According to an article on The Guardian’s website on March 21 by Chat Reynders, 3D printing will lead to great fuel and material waste reductions, not to mention cost savings. In the manufacturing process, typically numerous prototypes are created and shipped overseas before a final product is developed. That takes a lot of time and resources. With 3D printing the printer is usually able to create a perfect final product the first time around, cutting down on not only shipping fuel costs but also reducing material waste, which might otherwise end up in a landfill. Items will be able to be designed and printed closer to the markets that want them, fueling local economies and reducing green house gas emissions.
However, digging deeper I found a study done by researchers at UC Berkeley (http://sustainabilityworkshop.autodesk.com/blog/environmental-impacts-3d-printing) to compare the electricity and material waste generated by two types of 3D printers and traditional manufacturing processes. What they found differed a bit from what was written in The Guardian article. They looked at an “FDM” machine (fused deposition modeling), which is like a 3D version of a hot glue gun, and an inkjet 3D printer, that uses layers of polymeric ink to create objects. The FDM machine proved to be more environmentally-friendly than traditional manufacturing, yet the ink jet printer wasted up to 40% of its ink during printing. However, it all depends on how often the machines are used and if they are left on all day when not in use. The electricity waste of keeping these printers on makes them more environmentally-degrading than traditional manufacturing processes. So in order to maximize the environmental benefits of 3D printing is to use electricity sourced from alternative energy sources like wind and solar, and to maximize efficiencies in the use of the printers.
What about the fact that most 3D printers in use right now use plastic… isn’t plastic bad for the environment? It is true that 3D printers melt plastic down and form it into new shapes. Melting plastic creates fumes that are harmful to people if inhaled. There are greener alternatives, including bio-plastics and wood pulp, and these technologies will be used more often as 3D printing takes off.
3D printing can be a reality for just about anyone. A printer can be purchased for as little as $250. Maybe I’ll pick one up and start printing out some thin crust pizzas. Anyone up for dinner?!