Oct.3, 2013

3D printing isn't just cheaper, it's also greener, says Michigan Technological University's Joshua Pearce, an associate professor of materials science and engineering/electrical and computer engineering. Pearce drew that conclusion after conducting a lifecycle economic analysis on 3D printing in an average American household. His study showed that making stuff on a 3D printer uses less energy - and therefore releases less carbon dioxide - than producing it in a factory and shipping it to a warehouse.

Pearce and his team 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.

They 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.

3D printing can save energy by using less raw material. "Children's blocks are normally made of solid wood or plastic," said Pearce. 3D printed blocks can be made partially or even completely hollow, requiring much less plastic.

These partially printed Swiss children's blocks show how a printer can partly fill the interior of an item with plastic while maintaining its strength. Samuel Bernier photo

Pearce's team ran their 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. The team also did 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 said. "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."

The study is described in paper "Environmental Life Cycle Analysis of Distributed 3D Printing and Conventional Manufacturing of Polymer Products" which is in press in the journal ACS Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering.




Posted in 3D Printing Technology



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E J wrote at 10/13/2013 1:02:50 PM:

This doesnt address the amount of rubbish FDM prints people make then throw away. 2 inch yoda head in a low res extruder machine?= 2 months on the shelf then into the bin! Like for like, its greener...maybe. But take into account for personal users in "households" 90% of the awful parts you make will be thrown into landfill in the near future?

Balint wrote at 10/5/2013 3:48:19 PM:

@jd90 Fit and finish is a matter of time. The cost maintenance and printer time is only economical issues, not ecological ones. Ultimately though economy is on the printed parts side, since there is no planned obsolescence built in the product. It is a huge ecological and economical issue. And since through the net we can share and rate the best designs, through iteration there will be products that last a lifetime. Also recycling should be around the corner, for ffd printing.

jd90 wrote at 10/5/2013 4:08:35 AM:

I dunno. For one, it takes a pretty shoddy factory made part for a 3D printed part to match or exceed the fit and finish of a factory made part. Another, there's nothing in the paper on the operational cost, maintenance costs & value of 3D printer time.

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