3D Printing – Exploring a Technology and its Sustainability Potential

3D printing remains the cool kid in class, still fresh, and maintaining an attractive level of intrigue. And its future looks promising. According to Harvard Business Review from May 2015, industrial 3D printing is “at a tipping point, about to go mainstream in a big way.”

3D printing is a technology that can build three dimensional items by adding material, whether plastic, metal, concrete or human skin, layer upon layer, until the object is created. What began in a couple laboratories and garages ofmakers as a way to build customized components has become a lucrative industrial technology, enabling more efficient and customized manufacturing.

Numerous companies are already using 3D printing on a grand scale. For example, GE is printing jet engines, medical devices and home appliance parts while aerospace companies like Lockheed Martin and Boeing are printing plane parts. Invisalign has established a competitive advantage with 3D printed dental devices.

In fact, it’s estimated that within the next five years, we will have fully-automated, high-speed, large-quantity 3D printing that is economical even for industrial scale printing. Because 3D printing offers such a new level of flexibility, customization and fragmentation, the technology is already disrupting conventional mass production.

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Disrupting conventional manufacturing

Conventional mass production, which entails high-cost machinery, currently still has the advantage on 3D printing. Although upfront costs are expensive with mass production, the marginal loss on each widget plummets with each additional one created. Conversely, while 3D printing may be perfect for prototyping and has low upfront costs, it has yet to compete with conventional mass production to produce economies of scale. However, as industrial 3D printing evolves, its ability to customize could make producing at scale worth it.

Another key benefit is that 3D printed objects generally do not need assembly and can be printed as one piece. This cuts down on both material and labor costs. For example, GE Aviation has switched to printing the fuel nozzles of certain jet engines which allow the nozzle—once assembled from 20 separate cast parts—to be fabricated in one piece. GE says this will cut the cost of manufacturing by 75%.

3D printing can also use multiple printer jets to lay down different materials simultaneously. Optomec and other companies are leveraging this by developing conductive materials and methods of printing microbatteries and electronic circuits directly into or onto the surfaces of consumer electronic devices.

Combined with online computing, such as that enabled by the cloud, immediate adjustments to product strategy like changing the material composition or altering the design make 3D printing more adaptable to customer needs and preferences. Need a shoe with a wider frame or shorter heel? Or a personal prosthetic limb or quick-healing cast? No problem, the design can be altered and prototyped in real-time.

Environmental benefits too

3D printing has also been hailed as one of the most important solutions to achieve a closed loop, circular economy that cuts down on waste and raw material extraction. For example, the most common materials used for 3D printing plastic parts are acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) and polylactic acid (PLA). Both are thermoplastics—they become soft and moldable when heated and return to a solid state when cooled—but PLA is actually a sugar-derived polymer commonly made from corn. Provided that we use ecologically sound agricultural practices, we could sustainably grow the feedstock for all of our 3D printed objects if we used PLA.

Thermoplastics can also be re-melted and reshaped into new objects several times, which is particularly helpful when dealing with our current trash problem. The Plastic Bank, for example, exchanges currency for plastic trash to encourage waste management and poverty alleviation in developing countries. It’s then sold to companies as raw materials to be used as a feedstock for 3D printing new items.

3D printing may also allow more biomimetic production models by enabling hyper-local manufacturing. By buying the design from an online store rather than a brick-and-mortar shop and printing it DIY-style, we can eliminate the majority of traditional manufacturing waste. In addition, such a local production method could cut down 100% of the energy and material regularly consumed in transportation and packaging.

Powering your home 3D printer from solar or wind power could produce a near carbon neutral item as well. Think of Phonebloks, the first modular mobile phone design where if you want a new feature for your phone, you can merely buy and download a new “blok” design that snaps into your phone body. Hypothetically, you could toss an outdated blok back into a 3D printer and print up a new blok model in PLA with a metal layer (for the electronics), all powered by solar panels on your roof. Viola, an eco win for everyone.

The possibilities for making “green” 3D printed objects are also limitless. Just a few neat designs include the first 3D printed hybrid vehicle Urbee, a Kickstarter-funded portable wind turbine, AirEnergy, and stylish fold-up sneakers made from recycled PLA.

But not all is green

Despite 3D printings’ positive contributions, there are very real differences in the amount of waste produced, the eco-friendliness, and the cost of various 3D printing processes. Printing with an inkjet 3D printer, which lays down polymeric ink and then UV-cures it layer by layer, wastes 40-45% of its ink and its support material, and cannot be recycled. Extra materials that support the end-design, shaving uneven surfaces and dissolving chemicals all contribute to the total cost of 3D printing, resulting in higher production and external costs, particularly as waste gets discarded and needs to be treated.

In terms of materials, PLA is a reusable and biodegradable polymer, but most printing happens with non-environmentally friendly ABS plastics, nylons and other non-recyclable materials and post-processing chemicals that can create toxic fumes.

3D printing could also lead to a renewed materialism where consumers are driven to print more stuff. Already, if you visit Amazon’s online 3D print store or MakerBot’s online design community library, Thingiverse, most of the objects are knick-knacks with little or no functionality. And if 3D printing makes it easier for people to replace certain objects they want, will it further encourage a culture of consumption and disposal?

Another case of amplification

While 3D printing is changing the face of industrial manufacturing and the availability of customized personal products, is it inherently a more sustainable technology? Not necessarily.

As Kentaro Toyama explains in his book Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, or Jennifer Daniel, Graphics Editor at the New York Times describes in her talk Design is Capitalism, technology is a neutral tool for enabling or amplifying what we want. If we wish to learn more, technology enables it; if we wish to be distracted, technology is our savior; if we wish to make a completely customized item ourselves, technology – like 3D printing – provides that outlet.

Ultimately, it is a deliberate choice whether or not to manufacture material goods in a sustainable way. On the consumer end, we must decide how many things – sustainably made or not – we really need to fill our shelves. While 3D printing is considered by many to be the future of sustainable manufacturing, technology alone is not enough. Instead, technology must support new models of more efficient and sustainable businesses, material flows and supply chains.

As Richard D’Aveni, Bakala Professor of Strategy at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, recalls: it is our many layers of decisions that will add up to advantage in a new world of 3D printing. Let’s make sure that one of the initial layers of the technology is used for sustainably-minded benefit rather than quick, unsustainable fixes.