Dec 12, 2017 | By Tess

As a bourgeoning technology with a world of potential, 3D printing is regularly referred to as the manufacturing technology of the future, and is hailed as having many environmental benefits over existing mass production processes.

And while some of its environmental advantages are difficult to deny—3D printing has, after all, opened up unprecedented possibilities for customized, local production—a new series of articles published in Yale’s Journal of Industrial Ecology suggest that the sustainable potential and environmental impact of 3D printing technologies are not quite as defined as many companies would like consumers to believe.

“The research in this issue shows that it is too early to label 3D printing as the path to sustainable manufacturing,” explained Reid Lifset, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Industrial Ecology and co-author of the article. “We need to know much more about the material footprints, energy consumption in production, process emissions, and especially the linkages and alignments between the various stages in the production process.”

The articles go through many facets of 3D printing technologies, and address the common belief that additive manufacturing technologies are “inherently” environmental. This belief, says the research, is owed to the notion that 3D printing can provide the means to manufacture products locally (thus reducing emissions from transport) and has the potential to be “zero-waste.”

And while these characteristics of 3D printing are real (and marketable), the special issue suggests that the environmental impact of additive manufacturing on the whole is much more complex and must take into consideration the “pattern of usage” of the technology, machine configurations, and materials being used.

“This special issue demonstrates the capability of industrial ecology to reveal important and often overlooked aspects of new technologies,” added Indy Burke, Dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. “If we are to realize the environmental potential of 3D printing, we need to know where the challenges and the leverage points lie.”

Cover of Yale's Journal of Industrial Ecology special issue

The articles in the special issue cover a range of research areas within 3D printing and address areas such as the life cycle assessments of 3D printing processes and products; the energy consumption of additive manufacturing systems; the health risks of 3D printing (including the exposure to emissions and potentially hazardous materials from 3D printers); the sustainable benefits of 3D printed parts with complex internal structures; and how the technology is impacting supply-chain processes.

The special issue of the Journal of Industrial Ecology is entitled “Environmental Dimensions of Additive Manufacturing and 3D Printing.” The full set of articles can be accessed here.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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