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3D Printing: Low Volume Production by 3D Printing More Eco-Friendly Than Traditional Manufacturing

By Dick Weisinger

3D printing, or additive manufacturing (AM), creates objects from a digital 3d model by printing layers of material from different raw materials.

Recent studies are looking at the impact on the environment of 3D printing technology compared to other manufacturing technologies.  Researchers are trying to answer the question of “How Green is 3D printing“?

Jer Faludi, Sustainable Design Strategist and PhD candidate at UC Berkeley, working with members of the UC Berkeley mechanical engineering department, studied and compared the impact of creating objects with 3d printers versus creating similar objects using traditional milling.  Their conclusion is that “whether you’re milling or doing 3D printing, how you use the tool is the most important factor in its environmental impact. And there are many opportunities for 3D printers to improve, making huge leaps toward greener manufacturing.”

Faludi’s team found that while traditional injection molding won out in terms of environmental impact over 3D printers for large-scale mass production of items, when considering the usage scenario for the production of a small number of items, 3D printers were generally scored more eco-friendly.  Mills generally scored better in their use of energy, while 3D printing scored higher in their efficient use of materials and minimum waste.

Energy usage is one area where 3D printing typically scores poorly compared to traditional manufacturing.  Nick Owen, director of 3D Print UK, told RTCC that “[3D printing] is not all it’s cracked up to be in terms of [being] environmentally friendly; in fact it’s a very energy thirsty process.”

A study by Cuboyo found that “on the one hand, classic manufacturing is not adapted for low volume production of different objects in terms of environmental impact. On the other hand, the 3D printing technique cannot compete with injection molding for high volume production… 3D printing technology tends to be ecologically interesting for low volume production (<1000 parts) compared to traditional manufacturing (injection molding).”

Joshua Pearce, associate professor at Michigan Technological University, said that “we can get substantial reductions in energy and CO2 emissions from making things at home.  And the home manufacturer would be motivated to do the right thing and use less energy, because it costs so much less to make things on a 3D printer than to buy them off the shelf or on the Internet.”  Unlike other studies, Pearce’s team found that, using a basic 3D printer, items could actually be created with 41 to 64 percent less energy than making the same items in a factory and then shipping them to locations in the US.

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