3D PRINTING IS SPREADING across light-industry, and whilst there is cause for optimism, there’s still work to do in making the process credibly eco-friendly.
This year it was confirmed that levels of atmospheric CO2 had doubled since the dawn of the industrial era. The spread of 3D printing technology hails a new dawn in industrial manufacturing, but this time on a less heavy and ostensibly pollutant scale.
Given ever increasingly developments in 3D printing, we have to make certain that innovation is as eco-friendly as possible to prevent making the same mistake as we did when burning fossil fuels in previous generations.
Instead of looking at each development as innovative in its own right, it’s important to access the potentially harmful affects that any new technology could have on the planet, from our own backyards to the environments of other countries. #
Design and sustainability go hand-in-hand, certainly they must if we are ensure an end-line product with green ideals at its heart.
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 by-product. While many have used this fact alone to propose the sustainability of 3D printing, they may overlook other key factors.
Here’s what we know for certain. In comparison to conventional machine driven manufacturing, the 3D printing process is able to much more accurately calculated in advance the amount of material needed and and therefore ensure much less left over waste.
Arguably this is a major step forward in of itself by way of moving manufacturing towards greater sustainability, but there are
other elements to 3D printing that should be considered.
We have to consider the energy used in the 3D printing process, and as it turns out, many current forms do not use that much less electricity in production than traditional, subtractive alternatives.
The real value to Selective Laser Melting appears to be still based at the material-use level. One might presume that less energy would be used in 3D printing since it generally incorporates a
single device, yet these devices still must be big enough to carry out the manufacturing job and that requires energy.
3D printing is slower at producing products than traditional mould pressing. The mold-injection process may be large scale but it allows many units to be made in one sitting, albeit with an initially energy intensive period in heating up the material.
Injecting molding still comes out on top in terms of producing the most amount of units for energy available and this naturally is a concern for sustainability.
A traditional mold system might effortless produce 500 items per day, but this doesn’t look so eco-friendly if the traditional method is churning out 5,000 items using the same volume of energy.
Bear in mind that quality in material is a consideration too. The hardness of material used in 3D printing isn’t as high as that used in mold injection, since the former’s lasers need malleable material.
This can mean that 3D printed products may degrade faster over time and although plastic degradation is not necessarily a bad thing, it is if it increases further consumption.
However 3D printing carries an advantage in that it can produce units to a staggeringly high accuracy and therefore can build products using very complex internal structures that aren’t possible in traditional manufacturing.
In so doing, the 3D printer achieves the same end product but through a slimmer yet more innovative design that costs less material. There’s an impact here on transporting the units to retailers. The huge volume of units involved in modern manufacturing means that even slightly slighter products can have a considerable impact on fuel consumption needed for transportation.
With 3D printing it’s pretty much a mixed bag at the moment. It’s a technology that can certainly play an important role in decreasing CO2 pollution, but there must be refinements in the printing process before it can be considered a ‘green’ approach to manufacturing.
We do need a change towards eco-friendly light-industry and it would be surprising if 3D printing could not contribute in shifting attitude. The problem in reaching proper green credentials here is indicative of the wider shift towards green technology. From wind turbines, to solar panels, still ‘green’ technology is not performing as high as one might expect, either due to material cost or toxicity.
3D printing does prove we’re heading the right way but the technology must be refined much further before we can hail it as a weapon against climate change.
On a positive note, it’s a cause for optimism that, unlike in the industrial revolution, this time we are heading into a new industrial era with acute awareness of the need for environmental sustainability.
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