In what might seem like an intuitively non-obvious conclusion, a recent study finds that 3D printing is both cheaper and greener than traditional factory-based mass manufacturing and distribution. At least, it's true for making consumer plastic products on open-source, low-cost RepRap printers.
A team led by Michigan Technological University's Joshua M. Pearce conducted preliminary lifecycle analyses of three small plastic objects: a child's building block, a spout for a watering can, and a citrus juicer. The three objects chosen were considered typical of those people might want to print at home, and because open-source .STL files are easily available. They were also chosen to test different variables, such as the effect of fill percentage on environmental impact or geometrical complexity. The team included Pearce, associate professor of materials science & engineering, electrical engineering and computer engineering, and Megan Kreiger, graduate student in materials science & engineering.
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Researchers conducted preliminary lifecycle analyses of three small plastic objects: a child's building block, a spout for a watering can, and a citrus juicer. (Source: Joshua Pearce, Michigan Technological University)
The study, published in an open access article in ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering, found that the advantages of 3D printing over traditional manufacturing were mostly due to two major differences. First, the amount of material used for each object is much lower with 3D printing, partly because it's additive manufacturing and partly because fill composition can be easily changed, leading to more efficient shape design and even less material in items that don't need mechanical strength. Second, because 3D printing occurs at the point of use, there's no high costs or environmental impact of shipping products long distances from countries with low labor rates to distant countries that buy the end product.
The study concluded that the total energy demand of manufacturing plastic products can be reduced 41 to 64 percent and emissions can be reduced a similar amount when using PLA with less than 25 percent. Results were even better, at 55 to 74 percent, when using a solar photovoltaic-based distributed electricity generation system, since solar PV systems can be scaled to match existing loads. Reductions were not as great for the products made with ABS, since it requires higher temperatures for the print bed and extruder.
Kreiger and Pearce point out in the article that the aggregate environmental benefits of distributed manufacturing are not yet clear, "due to the potential for increases in the overall embodied energy from reduction in scale (e.g., thermodynamic limitations to working with smaller volumes)." With that in mind, they also mention the fact that different methods are being evaluated to reduce the energy required for the 3D printing build platform.
In an earlier open access article, Pearce and a different team established in a lifecycle economic study that an average household could save up to $2,000 a year making their own plastic products at home with a RepRap compared to buying conventionally made versions. In the new study, the authors note that costs of the manufactured objects can be reduced much further by using filament made from recycling post-consumer materials via open source RecycleBots at the point of use.
Aside from these eye-opening conclusions, I also found this study interesting because it talks about 3D printing as a technique for achieving distributed manufacturing. Distributed manufacturing, often in lower volumes, is being discussed as an alternative to the centralized, high-volume manufacturing that has become the traditional method around the world. As the costs of fuel and the demand for fuel have risen, along with concerns about the environmental impact of emissions, methods for implementing distributed manufacturing are getting a lot more attention. Cloud computing, cloud 3D printing via the Web or via fax, and the emergence of techniques for cloud manufacturing, are all part of this discussion.
Thanks Ann, for such an informative post , According to me 3D printers used for personal use will be more cost effective as compared to those used for mass production because less raw material will be used. The example that you mentioned in your article regarding children block makes it very clear that 3D printing can be cheap because when we make objects by orselves we can chooe the type of the product , traditionally such blocks are made of wood but we can make them with plastic making them partially totally hollow from inside this reduces the material and drop down the cost of manufacturing as well.
3D printing is no doubt a greener technology , less energy is required in this process which in result produces very little carbon dioxide which is harmfull to the enviornment . I have read somewhere that people are using filamaker that is a machine in their homes with 3D printers that takes in used plastic and releases fresh strings of plastic.
Color me skeptical with the quote of "an average household could save up to $2,000 a year making their own plastic products at home". I guess that the "Up To" clause covers them, but I really don't see many households purchasing $2000 worth of plastic products a year which can be printed at home!
That's a good point. "Up to" can be great qualifier to exaggerate.
Printing children's product is problematic. There are scores of regulations for reasons. Making children's toys from recycled plastic is nice and trendy but not very safe. For example, it would be almost impossible to know if the toy is BPA free. Anyone giving them away as gifts or selling the item at a DIY/Makers Fair could get into trouble for endangering children.
Jim_E, I was skeptical, too about the $2,000 figure. But it's amazing a) how much plastic the average American household consumes in a year and b) how many things can now be printed at home using 3D printers because of the machines and the availabilty of online open-source .STL files, plus cheap materials. The earlier open-access article we give a link to details how the researchers arrived at that figure as the maximum.
Good perspective on the energy savings benefits of 3D printing. However, one further consideration to evaluate when classifying a 3D printer as 'green' is which process is being used? I may have a different definition than others, but I assume that 'green' also means less harmful or toxic to human beings.
Some 3D printers may use less energy, but certain processes use hazardous or toxic materials (which can be harmful to humans). One 3D process that I used would cause skin allergies if the user was over-exposed due to frequent contact. Another process caused my co-worker to have a brief case of silicosis. I would suggest that in addition to energy consumption, that 'green' metrics also include the potential impact to the environment and to the operator's health.
Greg, the health effects of the plastics used in 3D printing is definitely a subject that's received some attention recently. But the measurements of "green" are quite specific and don't take health effects on human users into consideration: they're usually aimed specifically at reducing energy use, and therefore carbon emissions in the environment. That requires using an entirely different set of variables and measurements from those used to measure health effects. I think it would be confusing to merge the two. OTOH, I do agree that the health effects of the materials need more attention.
3D printing may be cheap in the long run but the costs of the same in the short term are prohibitively high. Very few companies can afford to use any 3D printers, let alone afford to buy the same. The costs go way beyond the costs of buying regular plastic raw materials and, as such, most companies will most likely stick to the latter for a long while to come.
3D printing is no longer a monolithic entity: it consists of many different technologies and materials, and a wide range of printers. So the costs of printing, depending on how one defines them, also range very widely, and generalizations don't really apply. The point of this particular study is that, at the low end with a cheap printer, consumers can save money making actual end-production objects. Regarding what will or won't happen with the higher end of 3D printing, including the proportion of end-products vs prototypes, a recent study by the long-term market research firm in this area (Wohler Associates) shows that finished goods have grown from 3.9% to 28.3% of revenue in just eight years (2003 to 2012) across all 3D printing sectors. This is true for GE Aviation and other high-end manufacturers. Stay tuned.
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