How Does 3D Printing Affect Climate Change?
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How Does 3D Printing Affect Climate Change?
With the Earths atmosphere already well past stable levels of CO2, its vital that we ensure that all new technologies are as efficient and beneficial to the environment as possible so that we dont commit the same mistakes as the generation before us. Rather than take every new device as a blessing regardless of potentially negative impacts on the health of communities, on the environment, or on the economies of other nations we have to do our best to innovate altruistically from the start. AtResponding to Climate Change (RCC), Nilima Choudhury has published a great post that addresses the environmental sustainability of 3DP/additive manufacturing, titledHow green is 3D printing?
The post takes data from a variety of sources to feel out the potential positive and negative consequences that 3D printing has and will have on the environment, as the technology becomes more widespread (citing estimates by the U.S. Department of Energy that AM could be a $5 billion industry by 2020). Dr Martin Baumers, a professor at the University of Nottinghams EPSRC Centre of Innovative Manufacturing in Additive Manufacturing, for instance, told the blog what many that are familiar with 3D printing already know: compared to subtractive manufacturing, additive manufacturing uses a lot less material and, therefore, creates a lot less wasted byproduct. While many have used this fact alone to propose the sustainability of 3D printing, they may overlook other key factors.
The ATKINS project, a research endeavor conducted by Loughborough University and industry experts to determine 3D printings carbon footprint, discovered that 3D printing may not always be so green when it comes to energy use. Funded with 2.7m from the UKs Technology Strategy Board, Nottinghams Professor Richard Hague, et al. teamed up with AM research firm Econolyst to measure the energy usage of 3D printing compared to that of a huge host of traditional manufacturing techniques. What they found is that, when it comes to the actual printing of a metal object using Selective Laser Melting, the amount of energy used is not too different from machining a metal object,with Professor Hague saying,We started off thinking additive manufacturing was going to be good at the production stage, youd use less energy at the production stage. It turns out its about comparable [to machining] at the production stage. The real benefit you get is at the material production stage because you use less material during the in-use phase.
In an interview withRCC, Nick Owen, director of manufacturing firm3D Print UK, explained that, because 3D printing produces fewer items in the same span of time as injection-moulding, it can be much less efficient:
Because youre using heat processes or powerful lights to cure resins theyre very energy hungry so your actual energy usage per item is very high. If you compare that to mass production where an injection mould is pumping out 1,000 things an hour, our machine is probably pumping out 100 things a day using the same amount of electricity.
Owen also pointed out that, in the case of filament recyclers, like the Filabot, the quality of plastic that may be reused degrades over time. This makes recycled plastic more prone to breaking with each re-use.
RCC, however, explains another benefit that 3D printing enthusiasts are already aware of and this benefit may be what ultimately makes the tech more green than traditional manufacturing methods in certain regards. Because 3D printing allows users to construct more complex geometries, it is possible to produce objects with lighter, more streamlined geometries. In the case of the transportation industry, as the ATKINS project discovered, this can save huge amounts of fuel. By 3D-printing aerospace components, for instance, Econolysts Dr. Phil Reeves toldThe Engineerthat manufacturers could reduce the carbon footprint of a vehicle bythree to four orders of magnitude more than the amount of CO2emitted to make them.Reeves explained it in this way,Theres a figure thats quoted within the industry that if you could save 100 kilograms in aerospace you save $2.5m of fuel.
The way I see it is that, like many potentially green technologies that could do much to reduce CO2emissions, 3D printing still has some negative environmental impacts at the current moment. Just assolar panels are made from some toxic elementsand thebatteries of electric cars, also made from toxic elements, still harness power generated from coal, natural gas, and nuclear power plants when they need a charge. What this means is that, were still not there, yet, in terms of environmental sustainability. After weve perfected3D-printed solar cells(a link obtained fromRCC) or miniature windmills, it will become easier to reduce 3D-printings environmental impact even further. And, because most nations (especially the United States) are still stuck to an unsustainable national power grid, no source of energy and, so, no manufacturing method will be green until the entire power grid is green. This means more wind farms andless fracking.
So, 3D printing is a step in the right direction, but theres still more to be done. At least, this time around, as a species, were on the lookout for what sorts of consequences our present actions have on the future. My only question is if weve started to learn this lesson in time.
Feature Image Source: Thingiverse userRobMartin701
Michael Molitch-Hou previously served as Editor-in-Chief of 3D Printing Industry, he is now the Editor of Engineering . coms 3D printing section. He has covered additive manufacturing technology day in and day out since 2012 and has hundreds of article to his credit. He is the founder of The Reality Institute.
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