What’s So Green About 3D Printing?

You may have noticed that we’re fans of 3D printing projects around here. From tiny handheld printers like the 3Doodler to massive projects like the 3D printed house, we can’t get enough of this magical technology. But we’re called “EarthTechling” not just “Techling”. We’re supposed to be exploring technologies that are as good for our planet as they are mind-blowing. Does 3D printing make the cut?

On the surface, 3D printing, while very cool, seems like just another way humans can create more plastic stuff. But while it may be the stuff of geeks and designers now, this growing trend actually has some pretty big green implications. Join us after the jump as we explore just how world-changing this hobby can be, and why it’s likely to help reduce future waste, rather than create more.

University of Warwick, 3D printing, plastic, electronics

Image via University of Warwick

End of Mass Production

According to those who’ve been following 3D printing since its earliest days, the technology’s biggest environmental advantage is that it may eliminate the utility of mass production. Currently, innovation is bottled up by “economies of scale”. This concept states that the more of something we can make at once, the cheaper it gets. Unfortunately, economies of scale encourage demand rampant consumption to stay afloat, and as such, often result in massive waste. With 3D printing comes the ability for a person to create a single object with the same affordability and convenience usually reserved for massive manufacturing facilities. No more shipping products across vast distances just because labor is cheaper on the other side of the world. Just click “print” and the object is yours in a matter of hours.

Access To Renewable Energy

3D printers are all the rage in wealthy countries like the United States, there’s reason to believe that they could just the boost developing nations need to leap frog our fossil fuel addiction. Because 3D printers allow the rapid fabrication of just about anything, there’s plenty of reason to believe that community-owned machines could soon be used to create solar panels or even wind turbines for remote villages. These technologies are prohibitively expensive when purchased ready-made, but with the ability to print their own, people without a lot of liquid assets could soon enjoy their benefits.

Repair, Recycle, Repeat

Unlike our forefathers, most people today lack the skills to make even the simplest repairs. My grandfather can jigger together a customized fix or alteration to just about anything, from furniture to plumbing, while those from my generation simply look up the number for the nearest furniture store or plumber. With the ability to make just about anything using a 3D printer comes the ability to engineer repairs and upgrades to existing products. Snapped the stem on your reading glasses? 3D print another. Lost the lid to your favorite food storage container? Print another. Favorite chair getting wobbly? Print a new footer to even it out. There are even projects underway for printing clothing, electronics, and replacement body parts.

But what about all that plastic? For now, most 3D printers utilize plastic filaments. Although there are some plant-based filaments out there, the fact remains that 3D printing will infuse our planet with even more plastic that it really doesn’t need. Enter the Filabot, a desktop recycling device that can turn  most types of plastic into filament. That means the machine can turn most plastic waste you might have around your house into a building material.

What are your hopes or concerns for the future of 3D printing? Do you see the big green implications, or would we be better served innovating something else. Share your thoughts in a comment!

Beth Buczynski is a freelancer writer and editor currently living in the Rocky Mountain West. Her articles appear on Care2, Ecosalon and Inhabitat, just to name a few. So far, Beth has lived in or near three major U.S. mountain ranges, and is passionate about protecting the important ecosystems they represent. Follow Beth on Twitter as @ecosphericblog

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jane-E-Hawkins/1810641406 Jane E. Hawkins

    In my dreams, that sargasso of plastic out in the Pacific becomes a sought-after resource. Chug-chug little FilaBoat, filtering out the plastic.

  • http://twitter.com/TElletPlumbing Thad Ellet Plumbing

    How do these 3D printers work?

    • bethbot

      Using a digital model created on 3D modeling software, 3D printers extrude a filament of plastic. They start from the bottom up, “printing” the object in layers of the material. For a much better description, refer to this mashable infographic: http://mashable.com/2012/08/01/how-does-3d-printing-work/

  • http://www.bethrobinson.me/ Beth Robinson

    You touched lightly on the impact of locality, but it’s a bigger deal, considering how much fuel is used to transport mass-manufactured materials from one place to another. The plastic that goes into the printer will be in a much more compact form so it will have weight but can be transported in fewer trucks and not have to be transported as far as many times.

    Object 3d printed at home or at workshops like a mega-Staples or some such don’t need packaging and all the materials – and waste – that implies.

    When more items are customer-requested at point of need, then there are fewer overruns of products made, and less waste.

    There’s the ability for abuse, of course, making plastic bits and pieces and throwing them away, but there are more options for improvement. I think that these benefits will come before being able to product solar panels or wind-turbines, due to the highly specialized materials that currently go into those application.

  • http://www.smallanddeliciouslife.com/ Ruben Anderson

    How about looking at the pounds of product per unit of machine impact?

    So, a 3D printer has computer chips, motors, magnets, screws, high-tolerance parts of all kinds. Add it all up and figure out the ecological impact.

    Then figure out how many pounds of product it will make in its lifespan. 5 pounds? Ten pounds?

    Now do the same for an industrial injection molder, for example. Impact of machine divided by hundred or thousands or millions of pounds of product.

    Do the math (add in shipping etc) and you would have a more meaningful idea of which is greener. Because right now, claims of green-ness are only so much smoke.