Innovation

Can 3D printing spark a green revolution in consumer products?

3D printing expert John Hornick likes to highlight how 3D printers will have a green effect on consumerism. But, we need to fully assess their environmental impact.

With 3D printers becoming increasingly accessible, less expensive, and able to create objects out of a range of materials, the additive manufacturing industry is poised to change the way we think about the goods we produce. And with this new technology comes questions about the implications—how will it affect people, the environment?

John Hornick, partner and litigator with the Finnegan IP law firm and author of 3D Printing Will Rock the World, believes that 3D printing will "herald a green industrial revolution." TechRepublic talked to Hornick to learn four reasons why.

SEE: CES 2016: The crowded field of 3D printers, in photos (TechRepublic)

  1. The machines. According to Hornick, 3D printers only use as much material as required to make a part. This is substantially different, he said, from traditional manufacturing, which begins with a block of material and "you machine away maybe as much as 90% of it to pan out the finished part." With the layer-by-layer process of additive manufacturing, he said, you're using much less material.
  2. The parts. Many 3D printers are creating parts "designed to use less material," he said, or by "using a different type of material that leads to a lighter weight part." Lighter weight parts translate into fuel savings, he said, which can make an impact when you're talking about something like an aerospace or automotive part.
  3. One machine, versus many, can build a part. Hornick said that whereas, in traditional manufacturing you might have a whole assembly line of machines contributing to manufacturing a part, a 3D printer just requires one.
  4. On-site production. 3D printing works best, Hornick said, "when you use it to make things close to where they are going to be used," which shortens the supply chain. "You aren't making things on one side of the world and shipping them across the world," he said, which reduces the need for warehousing and storage and maintenance, not to mention fuel costs of transporting goods.

SEE: How GE is using 3D printing to unleash the biggest revolution in large-scale manufacturing in over a century (PDF download)

But while the points are compelling, it's important to remember some of the arguments for why 3D printing can sometimes have harmful environmental effects. Here are some causes for concern, and Hornick's rebuttals.

  • Energy use. Laser beams used for 3D printing use far more energy than something like a milling machine. According to Lyndsey Gilpin, "MIT's Environmentally Benign Manufacturing program showed that laser direct metal deposition (where metal powder is fused together) used hundreds of times the electricity as traditional casting or machining." But, Hornick thinks we need to be looking at the big picture. "We're making something with one machine instead of ten, which means that all the energy that it takes to make and operate those ten machines is saved," he said.
  • Waste created from failed parts. Another potential issue is that with processes like metal 3D printing, which is still in its infancy, there is a high rate of failed parts, or scraps. Hornick agrees with this point, saying that current 3D printers are "evolving," and do not make products that are all the same—which means "you may be throwing away some parts because they are not perfect." Still, he said, "the promise of using less energy is there."
  • Emissions. Gilpin's article pointed to a 2013 study that showed how desktop printers' emissions are "similar to burning a cigarette or cooking on a gas or electric stove," creating unhealthy particles that are breathed in. Hornick can't argue, but said "there will probably be efforts over time to control that." He sees that as a bigger issue for homes rather than industrial settings, where there will be greater government oversight.

SEE: Photos: New Stratasys 3D printer can make 360,000 colors on 6 materials

Ultimately, the measure of environmental impacts of 3D printing is still up in the air; and the bigger question may not rest in the technology itself, but in how we use it.

Also see

Image: iStockphoto.com/Chesky_W

About Hope Reese

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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