There has been hype about the 3D printing industry for a couple of decades now. Since scenes in 90s when movies like Fifth Element and Small Soldiers showed humanity with the ability to instantly print 3D structures, even body parts; many column inches in industry magazines have hailed the process as the answer to every manufacturing problem.
The problem with hype is that it becomes difficult to sustain once a few decades have passed and, just as we are left waiting for nuclear fusion, advanced AI and hoverboards (90s movies are my only references it seems) humanity is still awaiting the day when traditional manufacturing processes have become obsolete as all products are available at the push of a button instead. It’s the type of tech that has been 'a decade away' for at least 20 years.
However, in the background, behind the hype, several companies have been making interesting advances in 3D printing, using new materials, new applications and lastly, but perhaps most importantly, in analysing the sustainability of the processes involved.
The biggest positive impact associated with rapid prototyping (fast 3D model making) or any kind of additive layer manufacturing is that of reduced resource use. Traditionally, any part or model would have to be machined from solid blocks of wood or metal, often creating more waste by weight than the part itself. This kind of subtractive process is hugely resource inefficient. Using the exact quantity of a material needed for a part, with zero waste, is a huge benefit of 3D printing. In laser or electron beam sintering of metal powders the leftover powder can be hoovered out and reused in the next build. Parts can also be made with less material to start with as 3D printing makes it easier to construct hollow structures; one of the many reasons the aerospace and F1 industries have been so taken with the technology is this ability to shed weight. Reducing and streamlining raw material use, especially with hard-to-find and hard-to-extract metals, not only prevents waste but can also improve the outlook for creating circular systems of take-back and recycling of these materials. With some types of 3D printing there is also the capacity to print multiple parts at the same time on the same plate, improving efficiency and energy use too without the need to change an entire production line.
Similarly, with printing in plastics/resin the potential for using lower quality plastics for certain applications is also promising from a sustainability perspective. The Plastic Bank creates filament for 3D printers from collected ocean plastic, paying people to retrieve waste in the process. This approach creates income, cleans rivers and seas and turns the waste into a value stream. The resulting filament can be used to print parts and prototypes. Closing the loop on plastic recycling is more difficult as the plastic degrades with each loop, however any steps to remove plastics from waterways and prolong the life of existing oil-based plastics helps reduce harm to wildlife, people and planet. More research should be carried out in this area to ensure that health and safety considerations around the use and re-use of plastic material are examined. Off-gassing and breakdown of plastics is an issue, especially with school 3D printer projects where children are potentially working closely with plastics.
The ability to print complex parts quickly also adds capability to the repair economy, where household objects and electrical items can be repaired and re-used easily, overcoming inbuilt obsolescence and preventing items ending up in landfill. One repair café in Berlin uses 3D printers not just to repair objects but also to promote open-source sharing of design and printer software. The success of these initiatives will depend on companies releasing design data and allowing makers access to support repair. In the same way that manufacturers currently endorse 'affiliate' appliance/tech engineers to repair products, they could provide design files for common parts and work on the repairability of ubiquitous household goods. After all, the most sustainable consumer choice is repairing the thing you already own.
The broader positive impact of additive manufacturing comes when the technology can be used effectively at scale, replacing the current system where items are mass-produced in energy and material-intensive ways at one site and then distributed worldwide, expending considerable energy and creating a huge carbon footprint. It is a significant criticism of the UK's already substantial national carbon footprint that it does not include products produced elsewhere and shipped to the UK. Distributed manufacturing combined with the digital revolution and Internet of Things has the potential to revolutionise the way we design, make and consume. Rather than mass manufacturing and distribution with its associated impacts and demand/supply unreliability, products could be printed nearby and delivered immediately. In turn, a thriving take-back, recycle and repair economy would ensure the materials used never end up going to waste. Of course, the potential social implications in terms of employment in traditional manufacturing is something to consider here, the robot AI take-over also seems to have been touted as an inevitability for a few decades; Keynes wrote in 1930 about how we would be so efficient by 2030 that we would all be working 15-hour weeks! Increased automation and the rise of machine-learning will certainly reduce the need for some types of jobs, but just as with previous industrial and technological revolutions, the demand for other types of skills usually increases too. It is incumbent on governments and corporations to be preparing workforces and young people for these new roles and skills.
3D printing isn't a silver bullet for all the issues associated with mass manufacturing and consumption. However, if those involved in its development are aware of the potential of the industry to facilitate positive change in environmental impact, it could be transformative. Listed companies with significant exposure to 3D printing include DuPont, BASF, Henkel, GE, Renishaw and Hewlett Packard, there are also a multitude of small businesses and start-ups in the space. Future-focussed investors should be aware of the technology's applications in a sustainable, closed-loop circular economy and consider the implications on traditional manufacturing and extractive industries.
3D Printers in films www.goprint3d.co.uk/blog/3d-printers-films/
The Plastic Bank: www.plasticbank.com/
3D Printing Repair Café Berlin: www.3dprintersonlinestore.com/3d-printing-repair-cafe-at-tu-berlin-is-more-about-accessibility
Academic paper: Sustainability of additive manufacturing: An overview on its energy demand and environmental impact www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214860417302646?via%3Dihub