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!

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