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Environmental impact of 3D printing

Posted: 23 Apr 2014     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:IBM  3D printing  OEM  supply chain 

3D printing has been gaining considerable attention from both designers and manufacturers due to what IBM has referred to as a trifold win for the electronics industry: more efficient design, lighter products and shorter product design cycles. As IBM indicated in its Global Business Services report, 3D or additive manufacturing is likely to reduce material waste and lower transportation costs.

This is where the statement "too good to be true" enters the picture. Amid all these benefits, one may wonder what the environmental implications might be.

All things considered, 3D printing will change the way design houses, OEMs and supply chain professionals think and act. However, let's not ignore some of the peskier aspects of 3D-related engineering, prototyping, supply chain, logistics and production activities. When you really dig into the question of 3D printing, a few things stand out, particularly when it comes to the near-term environmental impact.

3D printing

(Source: MakerBot)

"Not all printable materials are bio-degradable," IBM said in the report. It has been widely reported that 3D printers and related products depend on plastic filaments, much of which is wasted during the printing process and will end up piling up in landfills globally.

However, IBM said this will change in the near future. "While not all materials can be 3D printed, about 30 industrial plastics, resins, metals and bio-materials are supported today, with conductive, dielectric materials and green polymers expected to be printable in ten years."

Further, 3D printers don't have small carbon footprints. The University of California, Berkeley, reported last month on a study by Jeremy Faludi, a sustainable design strategist and mechanical engineering Ph.D. candidate. Faludi found that 3D printers "can exert impacts on the environment comparable to, or greater than, those of standard manufacturing. It all depends on what you're making and the kind of printer you're using to make it."

These devices also use more power than traditional machines, and the printing processes don't get a perfect thumbs up on the green-friendly scale, either. As Fast Company reported in January, it takes a lot of energy to keep the printers running and the plastic materials melted. "For a design shop that keeps 3D printers running throughout the day, each piece printed out has a big carbon footprint."

At the end of the day, the potential upside of 3D printing will probably beat down these possible annoyances. But let's not be naive and say it comes without a price. Somewhere down the road, someone, whether it's from a green consumer or the head of corporate social responsibility, will ask about the 3D vs. standard manufacturing trade-offs. And someone in the supply chain will have to answer the question. What will your response be?

- Jennifer Baljko
  EBN





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