What do we know! 17 years since the debut of the cartoon series Futurama and we can now actually translate our thoughts into a tangible object through 3D printing.Since its inception in 1984, 3D printing has come a long way from being a cheap prototype creator for business and has transformed into a new phenomenon that has the potential to integrate into infinite facets of our lives. As these machines can now use virtual designs to print products ranging from food and clothes to living biological material, it is important for future consumers of these products to explore its potential benefits and harms for the environment. Here’s what we have found so far:
- 3D printing can reduce input wastage through customisation of proportions and sizes of food and clothing, which will minimise the amount of materials being wasted during and after production processes. The nature of the printing process means that production only uses the necessary amount of material required for each part, equating to near zero waste as parts are no longer being cut out of bigger pieces of material.
- Due to the high mass cost of 3D printing, it provides designers with incentives to manufacture lightweight materials using fewer resources. Again, this could translate to huge savings on resource consumption.
- These lighter materials could further translate to lower energy consumption in the production and consumption process. For instance, lighter components mean reduced fuel consumption in transportation of products. Also, lighter components such as car or wind turbines mean less energy will be needed to power them.
- The ability of 3D printing to work with complex shapes also creates the possibility for material shifts that can improve the environment. For instance, 3D printing has made sawdust a potential adhesive instead of melted plastic, which traditionally uses a lot of energy to melt and plastic has an adverse impact on the environment in its creation.
However, as with many inventions, there is a flip side to the story.
- Depending on the type of 3D printer used, some actually waste a lot of material. For instance, inkjet 3D printers are believed to waste up to 45% of their polymeric ink.
- Some 3D printers are also high emitters of ultrafine particles and fumes that contain toxic by-products as a result of plastics being heated to high temperatures.
- Furthermore, there are doubts surrounding the durability of 3D printed products. Whilst some argue that some printers produce stronger structural integrity compared to traditional injection mouldings, others that argue a result of weaker outputs could require more frequent replacement of components.
There are still a lot of unknowns in regards to this innovation, there is definitely a lot more room for hard data on this production method before we label it as a ‘sustainable solution’. Thus, as consumers, we need to remain wary and continue to question and be alert in regards how our products are being made.
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