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How Does 3D Printing Affect Climate Change?

By September 5, 2013. Featured, Industry Insights

With the Earth’s atmosphere already well past stable levels of CO2 , it’s vital that we ensure that all new technologies are as efficient and beneficial to the environment as possible so that we don’t 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.  At Responding to Climate Change (RCC), Nilima Choudhury has published a great post that addresses the environmental sustainability of 3DP/additive manufacturing, titled “How green is 3D printing?” 

3D-printed windmill.

Thingiverse user Andrew_Keson’s 3D-printed windmill.

So, how green is it?

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 Nottingham’s 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 printing’s carbon footprint, discovered that 3D printing may not always be so green when it comes to energy use.  Funded with £2.7m from the UK’s Technology Strategy Board, Nottingham’s 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, you’d use less energy at the production stage. It turns out it’s 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 with RCC, Nick Owen, director of manufacturing firm 3D 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 you’re using heat processes or powerful lights to cure resins they’re 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.

3D printed aerospace componentsRCC, 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, Econolyst’s Dr. Phil Reeves told The Engineer that manufacturers could reduce the carbon footprint of a vehicle by “‘three to four orders of magnitude more’ than the amount of CO2 emitted to make them.”  Reeves explained it in this way, “There’s a figure that’s 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 CO2 emissions, 3D printing still has some negative environmental impacts at the current moment.  Just as solar panels are made from some toxic elements and the batteries 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, we’re still not there, yet, in terms of environmental sustainability.  After we’ve perfected 3D-printed solar cells (a link obtained from RCC) or miniature windmills, it will become easier to reduce 3D-printing’s 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 and less fracking.

So, 3D printing is a step in the right direction, but there’s still more to be done.  At least, this time around, as a species, we’re on the lookout for what sorts of consequences our present actions have on the future.  My only question is if we’ve started to learn this lesson in time.

Source: RCC

Feature Image Source: Thingiverse user RobMartin701 

  • Great article.

    A small scale loose analogy: A person making an eco-home using LAYBRICK filament (or equiv) bricks 3D printed using a Gigabot (or equiv), the Gigabot powered by a solar panel and mini wind turbine on site.

    Self-contained off-grid renewable energy systems + home 3D printing are a powerful combination.

    Whilst quantitatively disparate, many a lesson in efficiency from such a small scale example may be observed?

  • Kevin Quigley

    I would be interested to know if the UK energy study considered impact of recycling or reuse of metal during non AM processes? Whilst AM allows potential material savings it is not actually waste free, and the problem is that a lot of waste AM material is not recyclable.

    In non AM metal production processes the metal scrap can often be easily recycled, and indeed, there is a whole industry set up to enable his. Many raw material suppliers deliver stock material and collect scrap for recycling. With plastics the situation is even more simple as most moulders reprocess scrap material from sprues and set up parts internally and use it either as a mix with virgin resin or for products where using virgin resin is not required.

    Then there are production processes that result in very little waste like wire forming, tube manipulation etc. So yes, AM can save material, but so can traditional processes..

    • econolyst

      Kevin – as part of the UK study please let me comment. we did of course model waste – but only in terms of the additional material needed to enable the supply chain and the energy needed to consolidate it into waste (supports), we also factored in loses in AM production and also losses in terms of getting suitable powder in the first place. However, we didn’t model the recycling or reuse as in a full Life cycle analysis, this would be double counting. You only measure the embodied energy of the input stock which may or may not already contain recycled content

  • Nightfalcon

    Thx Michael that you brought forward an important matter: sustainability of 3D Printing.

    I like to add a question which should be discussed too:

    What will be the impact on efficiency and sustainability if a society would change from
    mass production at one spot to decentralized – sometimes called “democratic” – one piece production at 1000 spots? Do we loose for such a scenario sustainability = efficiency/economy of scale?

    I also share the view of Kevin Quigley. Recycling is a thing that need to be considered, too.

    My personal opinion: I doubt that “printing at home” by concept has a sustainable lowerCO2/waste footprint, at least if you include waste handling. But I would be happy if someone could proof the opposite.

  • Hank

    I saw a talk at the MRS conference by Kreiger at MTU who have already done some of these environmental life cycle analysis on the RepRap 3D printer and found in general lower CO2 emissions for “distributed manufacturing” – sometimes substantial from both printing and even more so from using recyclebot technology in the home. Big savings on both manufacturing because of partial fill printing and slashing transportation energy if you manufacture at home.

    See conference papers here:

  • Lee Roy

    The way I see it one of the greatest gains is the ability to produce tailor-made objects. Customizability is THE strength of 3D printing. And custom things are uniquely positioned to solve people’s problems in an optimal way, leading to less waste. Integrating this technological aspect into culture could translate into a world of material minimalism, a world of less silly gifts, gadgets and mountains of barely functional myeah-but-mno things, an alternative to the business-as-usual script of a tsunami of bad goods built for planned obsolescence. Instead it would be “print it for life”, or at least “make it do with more than Krazy Glue”.

    This is the promise of 3D printing for me, and it has yet to be realized at this point, but there ARE promising offshoots springing up.

    Online collaboration on open-source models and frameworks is key, and so is carefully considered software for expressively tweaking models. Ideally I’d like to see libraries of open source appliances, broken down into modules, standardised for interoperability.

    And of course the single most important overriding wish is for technologists to wake up and get with the program on the fatal crises of industrial civilisation, get a realistic model of the mess we’re actually in and purge their cornucopian fantasies about utopian tech.

    Devote yourself to appropriate technology, strive to come up with solutions to important problems that will actually help people further along the arc of collapse. I tentatively call it Descent-friendly Design.