As we’ve previously discussed on Bits & Pieces, the DIY Maker Movement has been using Atmel-powered 3D printers like MakerBot and RepRap for some time now. However, 3D printing recently entered a new and important stage in a number of spaces including the medical sphere, architectural arena, science lab and even on the battlefield.
Indeed, the meteoric rise of 3D printing has paved the way for a new generation of Internet entrepreneurs, Makers and do-it-yourself (DIY) manufacturers. So it comes as little surprise that the lucrative 3D printing industry is on track to be worth a staggering $3 billion by 2016. Recently, researchers at Michigan Technological University confirmed that in addition to being cheaper, 3D printing is also greener than more traditional manufacturing methods.
“Most 3D printers for home use, like the RepRap used in this study, are about the size of microwave ovens. They work by melting filament, usually plastic, and depositing it layer by layer in a specific pattern,” explained Marcia Goodrich of Michigan Tech News. “Common sense would suggest that mass-producing plastic widgets would take less energy per unit than making them one at a time on a 3D printer. [However, our recent study] showed that making [items] on a 3D printer uses less energy – and therefore releases less carbon dioxide – than producing it en masse in a factory and shipping it to a warehouse.”
According to Goodrich, the researchers, led by Joshua Pearce, conducted life cycle impact analyses on three products: an orange juicer, a children’s building block and a waterspout. The cradle-to-gate analysis of energy use went from raw material extraction to one of two endpoints: entry into the US for an item manufactured overseas or printing it a home on a 3D printer.
Pearce’s group found that making the items on a basic 3D printer took from 41 percent to 64 percent less energy than making them in a factory and shipping them to the US, with some of the savings originating from the use of “less raw” material.
“Children’s blocks are normally made of solid wood or plastic,” said Pearce. “[Remember], 3D printed blocks can be made partially or even completely hollow, requiring much less plastic.”
Pearce also noted that his team ran its analysis with two common types of plastic filament used in 3D printing, including polylactic acid (PLA). PLA is made from renewable resources, such as cornstarch, making it a greener alternative to petroleum-based plastics. In addition, the team conducted a separate analysis on products made using solar-powered 3D printers, which drove down the environmental impact even further.
“The bottom line is, we can get substantial reductions in energy and CO2 emissions from making things at home,” Pearce added. “And the home manufacturer would be motivated to do the right thing and use less energy, because it costs so much less to make things on a 3D printer than to buy them off the shelf or on the Internet.”