Is 3D Printing Sustainable? Examining the Environmental Impact and Future Potential

If you work in manufacturing or industrial design, aerospace, or healthcare, incorporating 3D printing into your company can be a positive move towards being environmentally conscious and practicing sustainability. This includes minimizing environmental impact by reducing carbon emissions, generating less waste, and conserving energy and resources.

Additive manufacturing offers a 3d printing sustainability advantage by utilizing material addition rather than subtraction to create various components like models, prototypes, tools, molds, and finished products. In contrast, traditional subtractive manufacturing necessitates more significant initial raw material usage and generates more waste. To illustrate, manufacturing an engine part prototype using 3D printing requires significantly less material than shaping it from a solid metal block.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, additive manufacturing (AM) has the potential to significantly reduce waste and material expenses by approximately 90% and decrease the energy consumption in manufacturing by 50% when compared to traditional manufacturing methods. This is positive information for any company examining the correct economic and 3D printing environmental impact.

To what extent does 3D printing good for the environment? Let’s assess the sustainability aspects of additive manufacturing by exploring its advantages and disadvantages.


The Possible Advantages of Implementing a Circular Economy Approach to 3D Printing

For all companies to adopt sustainable and eco-friendly practices – a goal universally supported by governments, trade groups, and consumers – it is crucial to address the issues of waste, pollution, and excessive use of energy and resources. Is 3D printing environmentally friendly? Even small businesses can promote sustainability by implementing recycling programs, emphasizing green purchasing, optimizing supply chains, and moving towards greener office and production practices, such as reducing energy consumption, as at Formlabs store.

In both our personal lives and the business world, there is an increasing emphasis on moving away from our current patterns of using, creating, and disposing of resources and adopting practices prioritizing reusing, repairing, refurbishing, remanufacturing, and recycling. By doing so, we can reduce our consumption of raw materials and decrease waste, pollution, and carbon emissions.

As an illustration, the European Union has set a goal for all European plastic packaging to be recyclable by 2030. This objective ties in with the concept of 3D printing because consumer-grade thermoplastics utilized in packaging can be an inexpensive and eco-friendly resource for 3D printing. A recent study suggests that transforming waste plastics into 3D printed products offers a valuable outcome. Utilizing local plastic waste as a raw material is one of the noteworthy advantages of additive manufacturing, which is already becoming evident.

For instance, Audi, a German car manufacturer, has recently initiated a project where they recycle the packaging materials they receive from the industry. They transform these materials using a filament maker and use them in their 3D printers to create factory tools.

In the perfect circular economy model, where full recyclability is a priority, all 3D printing companies have the opportunity to make sustainable 3D printing materials their primary resource. These materials can be recycled or repurposed once the printed object becomes outdated. While we have yet to achieve this objective, there are several encouraging instances and an increasing variety of recycled plastics available for 3D printing purposes.

Currently, 3D printing allows businesses to reduce their consumption of raw materials, minimize the amount of waste generated, and offer various notable eco-friendly benefits. Our investigation has revealed seven ways sustainable 3D printing can support companies in embracing eco-friendly practices.


Is 3D Printing Eco-Friendly? Exploring 7 Ways It Benefits the Environment and Promotes Sustainability

Let’s examine how additive manufacturing allows businesses to decrease waste, reuse materials, find new uses for old ones, and actively participate in recycling processes.


1. Design More Efficiently

3D printing enables the creation of unique-shaped and efficient parts, surpassing traditional manufacturing methods. This technology allows for smaller, more efficient, and eco-friendly designs, reducing material waste and assembly efforts. Manufacturers can produce intricate components and assemblies in one piece, reducing waste and energy consumption. Engineers are adopting eco-friendly 3D printing to replace multi-piece parts in industries like automotive, aerospace, hydraulics, and heat exchange systems. Topology optimization further enhances efficiency, resulting in lighter, more sustainable vehicles and aircraft. GM used generative design and additive manufacturing to consolidate multiple parts into a single 3D-printed piece, exemplified by a seat bracket responsible for seat belt security.”


2. Use Less Raw Material

3D printing optimizes material placement for component manufacturing, reducing waste compared to traditional methods. Companies can save money with 3D printing by lowering their initial raw material usage, especially when using cost-effective metals like titanium and space alloys. Additive manufacturing isn’t waste-free, but it allows the reuse of remaining metals and resins and ensures that any unutilized waste can be recycled. On the other hand, leftover metal waste from conventional manufacturing requires energy for collection and processing before it can be recycled.


3. Repairability & Spare Parts

3D printing efficiently repairs and extends the life of equipment, reduces resource consumption, and saves costs. It’s also increasingly used for producing household appliance spare parts. This technology benefits aerospace and heavy machinery industries by restoring worn-out metal components, resulting in significant cost savings.


4. Make Parts Locally

Small and large businesses use 3D printers locally to make parts and products, reducing environmental impact and supply chain risks. The pandemic has intensified the shift toward local production. An example is Mighty Buildings, which uses 3D printing to create house walls near construction sites using recycled materials.


5. Eliminate Inventory

3D printing eliminates the need for excess storage and unused parts by enabling on-demand or limited-quantity production. Materialise, a 3D printing service company, collaborates with eyewear brands to offer personalized, made-to-order eyeglasses collections, addressing stock wastage issues. Alireza Parandian, a wearables expert at Materialise, highlights the industry’s desire to create eyewear designs using materials at the right speed and quantity, reducing waste and financial risk tied to unsold stock.


6. Streamline Manufacturing

3D printing is highly efficient, reducing the need for tools, parts, and traditional manufacturing processes, resulting in significant labor, equipment, and energy savings. It’s known for its speed and flexibility.

Unlike other methods, 3D printing directly creates products without molds, minimizing labor. For instance, in medical model production, 3D printing allows hospitals to quickly and cost-effectively produce a wide range of models, including custom ones, using a single machine. At the same time, traditional plastic molding requires separate molds and factory-based processes.


7. Smaller, Quieter Factories

A single 3D printer can replace multiple types of traditional manufacturing machinery because it can produce a wide range of parts using different materials. This advanced technology is highly automated, reducing the need for human labor and allowing it to run continuously without supervision. As a result, factories can be smaller and emit fewer pollutants. In addition, 3D printing facilities can be located in urban areas or closer to where they are needed instead of confined to industrial parks far away from residential areas. Moreover, compared to traditional manufacturing equipment, 3D printers create significantly less noise pollution.


An Afterword

In summary, sustainable 3D printing offers multiple environmental benefits, including efficient design, reduced raw material usage, local production, elimination of excess inventory, streamlined manufacturing, and quieter, smaller factories. Embracing these practices can help businesses reduce their environmental impact and contribute to a greener future.