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How Sustainable is 3-D Printing?

Words by 3p Contributor
Data & Technology
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By Anuradha Wadhwani

From fresh cupcakes to satellites that are created in space, 3-D printing is poised to make on-the-spot manufacturing a reality. Enterprises have enthusiastically praised the environmental benefits of moving toward that state where most goods will be produced and sold close to their point of consumption. Equally, consumers are excited about switching over to a greener, more ‘local’ way of life enabled by the additive manufacturing process.

“It’ll put an end to polluting factories.” “It’s going to help save fuel.” “It’s the new green credential for businesses.” These are just some of the statements that accompany most discussions about 3-D printing. But, in the opinion of researchers, we may have been too quick and a tad idealistic in reaching these conclusions.

Although 3-D printing brings with it the promise to make manufacturing ‘cleaner and greener,’ the enabling technologies don’t boast those qualities yet. Even as we extol 3-D printing, all of its advantages need to be taken with a grain of salt – at least until the time we see more sustainable solutions to bypass the following problems:

Harmful emissions call for standardized filtration and exhaust accessories

The environmental impact of additive manufacturing could be as bad as conventional manufacturing, but there isn’t an appreciable body of definitive research to tell us that yet. The few studies that delved deeper, however, haven’t emerged with good news.

Sustainable design strategist Jeremy Faludi recently published a study on "ultrafine particle (UFP) emissions from desktop 3-D printers" and concluded that caution should be exercised when operating 3-D printers in indoor environments that are not properly vented. Many such printers extrude and deposit heated thermoplastics, releasing harmful UFPs and emissions in the process. Another study, conducted by researchers at the Illinois Institute of Technology in the United States and the National Institute of Applied Sciences in France, had similar findings to report.

There are currently no clear mandates about the filtration or exhaust accessories that should be sold with such printers, which means users are likely already exposed to serious health hazards. Because 3-D printers share this undesirable attribute with traditional manufacturing, it’s important that they’re brought under the regulatory scanner, too.

Toxic materials mean that we need to stress on the use of eco-friendly alternatives

A study at the Robert Morris University in Pennsylvania found that materials such as photopolymers — which are used as epoxy resins for rapid prototyping using resin 3-D printing—contain up to 100 times more antimony (a toxic heavy metal) than, say, polyethylene terephthalate (PETE). Sample products made using these photopolymers were observed for a 20-hour period; researchers noted that 3 percent of the antimony content leached from the samples during this time.

Although the quantity of photopolymers used in prototyping is insignificant, the 3-D printing industry’s breakneck pace of growth is expected to compound the negatives. As more such problems come to the fore, the demand for eco-friendly materials will certainly develop. Another point that needs some pondering over is the best practice(s) for end-of-life disposal of 3-D printers.

Plastics are detrimental to the environment. Period.

We’re not too far from the day when most homes will have a 3-D printer. Of course, there’s nothing that beats the convenience of printing a toy for your kid or a garden hose for grandpa, but imagine the unbridled reliance on plastics this will induce. The problem, as such, is not with adopting this distributed manufacturing practice. It’s about the kind of materials we'll grow reliant on in the process. Plastics can be recycled, yes. In fact, there are products such as the Filabot Reclaimer that allow bad 3-D prints to be reused. And more such products are now becoming available on the market.

But a real solution to this problem can only be brought forth by experimenting with alternative materials. Interestingly, there are a number of exciting developments being reported on this front. Take for instance, the team at the Pennsylvania State University that’s making a 3-D printable thermoplastic derived from squid DNA. Or, the France-based leFabShop that launched an innovative Seaweed Filament (SWF) for 3-D printing.

Of course, these environmental concerns will in no way impede the frantic pace at which the 3-D printing industry continues to grow. But enterprises and consumers will likely thank themselves a few decades from now for putting some thought into making the 3-D printing phenomenon greener when they had the chance.

Image credit: Pixabay

Having extensively worked as a journalist with leading national dailies in India, Anuradha Wadhwani now writes for Transparency Market Research, a U.S.-based market intelligence firm. Anuradha is passionate about tracking (and questioning!) market trends across areas such as sustainability, innovative materials and chemicals.

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