If you search “3D printing” and “change the world,” Google will serve up 379,000 results. Replace “change” with “changing” and the results are nearly cut in half. Use “changed” and the results decrease again. Entrepreneurs, scientists, inventors, along with thousands of everyday people are reversing this pendulum each and every day. From knick knacks to houses, 3D printing is becoming more prevalent, more accessible and hopefully more sustainable. We know 3D printing is more efficient. But does it present a permanent solution to disastrous problems, such as pollution in China? Sifting through the facts reveals when and if the rhetoric for 3D printing will become, “changed the world.”
What We Know
3D printing introduces a new manufacturing process that requires training and education with biotech, new materials, IT and specialized, high-end manufacturing. Products are expected to be lighter with longer product lifecycles. The computer aided product design process opens up possibilities for net shape manufacturing, which means prototypes are similar to final products thus reducing energy needed for fine tuning.
RepRap claims to be “humanity’s first general purpose self-replicating manufacturing machine.” The machine is designed and priced for civilian use and creates everything from sex toys to Smithsonian artifact replicas. But most notably, the machine 3D prints every part necessary for another RepRap. This would naturally translate to shorter supply chains, reducing transportation and shipping pollution.
Not surprisingly, the machine’s creator, Adrian Bowyer, formulated the idea based on the principles of biomimicry. Specifically, the system of symbiosis, where the interaction of two organisms is to the advantage of both. Take the analogy of how plants and insects benefit each other when an insect spreads pollen after snacking on nectar. Bowyer thinks of the RepRap as the plant, which prints useful goods (nectar) as a way to grow its species. Users serve as insects who benefit from the goods but also support RepRap expansion by printing models for friends.
goods → nectar
people → insects
RepRap → plants
The advantages are clear and the possibilities are limitless with additive manufacturing systems like the RepRap. However those ideals have been online since February 2004. There must be explanation for why the RepRap hasn’t experienced a more accelerated adoption. On top of societal, even political factors that complicate the idea of ushering a new era of manufacturing – environmental factors play a role as well.
Questions remain, discoveries are inevitable
The amount of energy used by 3D printers wasn’t properly measured until the Atkins project was launched by Loughborough University’s world-leading Additive Manufacturing Research Group. The Atkins team set out to develop aircraft and vehicle parts using 3D printing technology while evaluating and comparing the carbon output to traditional methods. The optimistic team used “Atkins” as the name to represent their “low carb” hopes.
Some say that the Atkins project exposed the daunted energy needs to 3D printing on an industrial scale. Author Melba Kurman concluded that 3D printers that use heat or a laser to melt plastic consumed an estimated 50 to 100 times more electrical energy to make an object of the same weight than the process commonly used today, injection molding.
However Professor Richard Hague, who headed the project, referred to how 3D printing saves energy and improves efficiency over the course of a complete manufacturing cycle.
“We started off thinking additive manufacturing was going to be good at the production stage, you’d use less energy at the production stage,’ he said. ‘It turns out it’s about comparable [to machining] at the production stage. The real benefit you get is at the material production stage because you use less material and the in-use phase.” said Hague.
So just because the energy savings isn’t seen at the production stage, materials sourcing, distribution, usage and end-of-life management would all improve with industrial 3D printing initiatives.
Another aspect of additive manufacturing was concluded by Brent Stephens of the Illinois Institute of Technology. Ultrafine particle emissions were tested when five desktop 3D printers fabricated small plastic objects (using both ABS and PLA plastics) over the course of two and a half hours. Air quality analysis revealed that 3D printers could be characterized as “high emitters” of UFPs. Yet a report from the Health Effects Institute (HFI), stated the levels were about the same as cooking indoors (combustion of fossil fuels for transportation, home heating, and cooking all emit UFPs). Therefore, there isn’t much to take away until the effects are tested at an industrial scale.
Another study done by the American Chemical Society looked at the toxicity of 3D printed parts. It concluded that multiple methods of 3D printing resulted in parts that damaged zebrafish embryos when exposed. Safe disposal of parts and waste would be required.
Connecting renewable energy with 3D printing will be paramount for mass adoption of 3D printing.
Currently, renewable energy can’t provide an affordable, consistent and reliable source of power needed to fuel (most) mass-manufacturing operations. However, 3D printing methods allow for “stop and start” processes which would ruin traditional manufacturing processes. Syncing up manufacturing speeds with availability of renewable energy is referred to as “bursty manufacturing” and it represents an enticing possibility for the future.
Information and research available to date point to the fact that 3D printing without a doubt opens up possibilities for green manufacturing, recycling innovations and an energy-saving product life cycle. But there are valid concerns which make it clear it’s not a “flip the switch” solution.
Who’s making an impact today?
There are seven commonly used types of plastics and thousands of variations. 3D printing recyclable plastic requires meticulous selection and sourcing. That’s exactly what a small team out of the UK is doing with Fila-Cycle. They produce filaments that can be used for completely recyclable 3D printed creations. The company details exactly where their material comes from and makes the complicated seem simple.
- Plastic pellets from automotive parts. (100% ABS)
- Plastic flakes from food containers. (100% PLA)
- Plastic flakes from clear bottles. (100% PET)
- Plastic pellets from appliances and electronics. (100% HIPS)
The company has created spools, boxes, propellers and more with the material. Their ongoing kickstarter offers rewards varying from kilograms of recycled material to vases created with recycled filament.
Sustainable 3D printing innovations aren’t limited to the private sector. North of Australia, Milingimbi Island is home to some plastic innovations with great possibilities. The island is smothered with plastic which drifts in from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Residents are collecting the plastic and turning it into toys for the community. Run by the Arnhem Land Progress Association, the program not only recycles plastic, but educates kids about technology and opens up job possibilities. Sunglasses and iPhone holders are also being made by the community using nothing but discarded plastic and low end 3D printers.
Ekocycle, which involves Chuck Hull, the inventor of stereolithography, Coca-Cola, and will.i.am, is a post consumer waste project that looks to weave commercialism with high-tech innovations. With models ranging from $1099 to $4900, the system promotes zero waste along with personalized design and style. The cartridges use 25 percent post-consumer waste, or about 3 large drink bottles of plastic. They can be sent to their headquarters in South Carolina for a $5 credit.