The potential of 3D printing to reduce the environmental impacts of production

Panel: 2. Sustainable production design and supply chain initiatives

This is a peer-reviewed paper.

Authors:
Catriona McAlister, Sea Green Tree S.L., Spain
Jonathan Wood, Tenvic Ltd, United Kingdom

Abstract

This study evaluates the environmental impacts of 3D printing, and considers how the use of 3D printing technology in place of traditional production methods can improve the sustainability of production. The feasibility of 3D printing as an alternative to traditional production methods will depend upon the specific application. We identify the key strengths and weaknesses of the technology, and suggest that despite the limitations, 3D printing will continue to sustain growth in the industrial, retail and after-market support, biomedical and low-end consumer areas. We find that use of electrical energy appears to be the largest environmental impact of 3D printers, but waste is still important, particularly as it represents a proportion of wasted energy as well as materials. Embedded energy in the manufacture of the product is more significant in low-use scenarios, and while transport is not significant, reductions in transport of products represent a convenience to the user/manufacturer. We explore the range of factors that influence the comparative environmental impacts of mass production versus 3D printing, and provide initial guidelines on how to minimise environmental impacts of 3D printing. We also consider the impact positioning of the 3D printer in the supply chain has on environmental impacts, showing that high production applications result in the most favourable outcomes. We conclude that there is scope for considerable improvement in the environmental impacts of 3D printing. The starting point can be a proactive consideration of environmental factors from the outset of production / product design. Greater research comparing economic and environmental impacts of different printing approaches and highlighting suitability of processes to specific design requirements could facilitate a shift toward lower impact 3D printing and maximise the potential of 3D printing to liberate designers from the boundaries of traditional production.

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