Like hoverboards and cloning, 3D printing sounds like something out of an old science fiction movie that has become a commonly accepted reality in our modern world. While we are arguably still a few years away from flying cars, the development of 3D printing shows just how far technology has brought us.
The implications of accessible 3D printing mean big changes for medicine, architecture, education, and manufacturing. In an environmentally conscious world, it is essential that we understand the potential for green manufacturing processes that 3D printing presents.
How Does 3D Printing Work?
During the 3D printing process, the printer creates objects layer by layer using a variety of different plastic resins, metal, and in some cases, even skin. Depending on the 3D printing apparatus used, and the material in question, the process can vary. For example, Stereolithography is the most common process. It uses a UV laser focused on a canister of liquid photopolymers. The laser follows the command as entered into the printing apparatus, using the liquid to create the desired product. The liquid hardens in the desired shape as it is exposed to light. Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) follows a similar procedure using powdered metal.
Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) is often seen in accessible areas, like libraries and high school science labs, and uses strings of molten plastic in layers to create the desired shape. As with any technology, 3D printers have become more affordable and accessible over time, regardless of the printing method used.
Green Manufacturing Implications
There are many ways that 3D printing can change manufacturing processes for a more sustainable, eco-friendly approach to mass production. Here are a few implications based on the current technology.
Reduces Production Waste
The most direct way that 3D printing impacts the environment during production is through the drastic reduction in waste materials. There are no molds from which a product is removed, leaving the edges and remainder to be disposed of as scrap. Only the material needed to create the finished product is used without any excess remaining.
This process is considered additive manufacturing versus subtractive manufacturing; adding materials to create a product rather than removing a product from materials. While many plastic manufacturers may reuse scrap plastic in production, 3D printing reduces the energy used to run the scrap back through the production line.
Reduction in Carbon Emissions
If you take a step back from a factory production line, the impacts of using 3D printing have an environmental impact at a higher level as well. The process emits less pollution than traditional manufacturing processes. One study showed that changing a part of the manufacturing process evaluated reduced carbon emissions by 40%. Thus, the global implications of having every company replace suitable production methods with 3D printing are unimaginable.
As products manufactured with 3D printing are lighter, the cost of transportation is lessened, concerning both monetary and environmental terms. Businesses save money on transportation as their goods are lighter. This also means that more can be sent in a shipment, reducing the amount of trips to transport something or lower fuel consumption to go the same distance. Either way, the detrimental effects on the environment are reduced.
Consider also that as 3D printing becomes more accessible, manufacturers may not require a centralized production factory; they could have smaller production lines scattered in different areas, further reducing the need for transportation. Depending on the process used, this may have beneficial financial implications for businesses as well.
Automobile and airplane production companies are also looking at how 3D printing can reduce the weight of the vehicles themselves. This will drastically reduce fossil fuel consumption and may make the invention of flying cars closer than you think.
Gaps and Barriers
As with any relatively new technology, there are still kinks to be worked out. One of the main concerns for 3D printing technology right now is the high level of electricity usage. It will take some time to make the process more energy efficient. There is also fear of an increase in plastic consumption. To counteract this, proper recycling techniques will need to be investigated. Additionally, as time passes the creation of more sustainable materials to be used during 3D printing may come to light.
3D printing is still in its early days of innovation but holds incredible potential for shaping the eco-friendly future of manufacturing. Technology advances at an exponential rate as one invention builds off the last. Consider that access to the internet only became a household staple within the last thirty years. Now we carry around the internet in our pocket at all times. The next ten or 15 years could render our present technology obsolete and unrecognizable.