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Friday, October 25, 2013

Good news for 3D print enthusiasts

3D printing is not only a fun, interesting way to design and make things, but it’s also good for the environment. Megan Kreiger and Joshua Pearce from Michigan Technological University have found that products made with 3D printers have a lower environment impact than the same items made using conventional manufacturing methods.

Everything from lab equipment to body parts can now be made by 3D printers. However, doing so requires energy and raw materials. Given the necessity of combating climate change, it’s important to know what the net effect would be of moving more and more manufacturing into homes and businesses.

A) Naef building block
B) Water spout
C) Juicer

The researchers followed the energy consumption and greenhouse emissions for every aspect of manufacturing three items (a Naef building block, a water spout and a juicer, shown above) either with a RepRap 3D printer or in a conventional factory. The analysis including everything from the extraction of the raw materials, to assembly, to shipping from overseas (which is a realistic scenario for plastic items).

The 3D printers had a smaller carbon footprint than conventional manufacturing. This was largely because 3D printed products can be made with specified fill levels (as seen below) that use considerably less material than factory-made products.

 Example of fill percentages for Naef blocks 0, 5, 10, and 25% (left to right).DOI: 10.1021/sc400093k.
Energy usage can be decreased even more if the 3D printers are powered by solar panels or other renewable energy sources. And the total manufacturing cost goes down still more if the filament used in printing was itself recycled. For example, the authors calculate that the juicer might cost as little as four cents if printed with home-made filament, compared to at least $7 in a shop.

Of course, you still have the initial cost of the 3D printer and of the filament recycler, and that’s going to cost several hundred bucks even if you make them yourself. However, the time is fast approaching when printing your own household items will be cheaper than going to the hardware store. It will also be better for the planet.

Megan Kreiger, & Joshua M. Pearce (2013). Environmental Life Cycle Analysis of Distributed Three-Dimensional Printing and Conventional Manufacturing of Polymer Products ACS Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering DOI: 10.1021/sc400093k.

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