Technology is always updating and evolving, and 3D printing is no expectation. 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is the making of three-dimensional solid objects from a digital file. You have probably seen products being made using a 3D printer. Things like phone cases to home tools to toys. If you can design it, you can print it. 3D Printing has been advertised in some cases as a sustainable, eco-friendly technology that would allow consumers to produce products at home, thereby reducing the amount of energy and resources required to transport items from factories to their homes. However, the technology is not yet advanced enough to make that statement completely true.
Lower Distribution Emissions
3D printer can be purchased online or in stores, which gives people the ability to print items from anywhere in the world. This reduces transportation of products and parts to locations, which in turn reduces fossil emissions as less fuel is used. Additionally, with 3D-printed products being lighter (up to 50%), less energy and fuel is consumed when transporting goods. Lighter parts also help in transportation.
There is a large range of materials 3D printers can use. Recycled plastics are making waves right now and lots of companies are jumping on. Recycling companies are collecting plastic waste and sorting through the different types. They would then grind or shred the plastic waste into large bins for processing. The bits are then melted and extruded through a machine into printing filament to create a new 3D printing filament. The filament made is incredibly cheap yet retains almost all the same qualities as normal plastic. It costs much less to print than if you used commercial filaments.
3D printers also use less material than traditional manufacturing. The process allows the product to be created without much waste, as the product is not cut out or material shaved off, thus less excess waste material. With it also being additively manufactured (created layer by layer), the product is lighter and sometimes stronger.
While it's true that 3D printers use recyclable materials in a closed loop process, and the objects they produce are also recyclable, there are still issues with power consumption, disposal and emissions from transportation that need to be addressed before we can safely say 3D printing is good for the environment.
(Tokyo 2020 Olympics podiums were 3D printed with recycled filament)
3D printers use a lot of power for machines that only make one object at a time. This means that it takes longer for them to pay back the energy cost from producing them—and this doesn't even take into account how much energy it takes just to run a 3D printer on a regular basis. The cost of running these machines can be pretty high, depending on what model you buy and how often.
The energy required to operate a 3D printer is still high compared with other household appliances, which means they need an outlet in order to function properly. In addition, while there may be some savings when it comes to shipping products overseas due to lower transportation emissions, these same savings will likely not be seen when it comes down to transporting items locally or domestically where distance travelled is much shorter and therefore less fuel needed per item transported.
As with any product, it is very important to consider the environmental impact that 3D printers have. While no product can be completely sustainable, comparisons must be made between competing products and technologies to determine which is most efficient in terms of resource consumption, material depletion, and waste production. As these numbers become more widely known among consumers, a transition towards more environmentally friendly products will take place.
3D printing shows the huge potential to revolutionise manufacturing, and the speed at which companies develop new types of materials could be key to displacing traditional processes. Many companies are already working on developing new materials, from biodegradable plastics to recyclable models that waste fewer resources during production. No matter how this plays out in the short-term, 3D printing is here to stay, and we can expect 3D printers will reduce environmental impact as their popularity grows.