How Does 3D Printing Affect Climate Change?

With the Earth’s atmosphere already well past stable levels of CO2 , it’s vital that we ensure that all new technologies are as efficient and beneficial to the environment as possible so that we don’t commit the same mistakes as the generation before us. Rather than take every new device as a blessing – regardless of potentially negative impacts on the health of communities, on the environment, or on the economies of other nations – we have to do our best to innovate altruistically from the start.  At Responding to Climate Change (RCC), Nilima Choudhury has published a great post that addresses the environmental sustainability of 3DP/additive manufacturing, titled “How green is 3D printing?” 

3D-printed windmill.So, how green is it?

The post takes data from a variety of sources to feel out the potential positive and negative consequences that 3D printing has — and will have — on the environment, as the technology becomes more widespread (citing estimates by the U.S. Department of Energy that AM could be a $5 billion industry by 2020).  Dr Martin Baumers, a professor at the University of Nottingham’s EPSRC Centre of Innovative Manufacturing in Additive Manufacturing, for instance, told the blog what many that are familiar with 3D printing already know: compared to subtractive manufacturing, additive manufacturing uses a lot less material and, therefore, creates a lot less wasted byproduct.  While many have used this fact alone to propose the sustainability of 3D printing, they may overlook other key factors.

The ATKINS project, a research endeavor conducted by Loughborough University and industry experts to determine 3D printing’s carbon footprint, discovered that 3D printing may not always be so green when it comes to energy use.  Funded with £2.7m from the UK’s Technology Strategy Board, Nottingham’s Professor Richard Hague, et al. teamed up with AM research firm Econolyst to measure the energy usage of 3D printing compared to that of a huge host of traditional manufacturing techniques.  What they found is that, when it comes to the actual printing of a metal object using Selective Laser Melting, the amount of energy used is not too different from machining a metal object,with Professor Hague saying“We started off thinking additive manufacturing was going to be good at the production stage, you’d use less energy at the production stage. It turns out it’s about comparable [to machining] at the production stage. The real benefit you get is at the material production stage because you use less material during the in-use phase.”

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