Does 3D printing offer an environmentally friendly future?

Standardization created the tremendous efficiency gains that allowed the industrial revolution to happen. But now the pendulum is swinging the other way - customization is on the rise. How can we offer custom products in a sustainable way?

When Henry Ford implemented the conveyer belt in his car factories, allowing the T-Ford to be produced quickly and on a large scale, cars became affordable for the middle class. To make this mass production possible, the car’s design had to be highly standardized, which led to the famous quote “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” Standardization was a prerequisite for the industrial revolution. The times of craftsmanship, when a product was handmade by a single person, faded away.

Now, many years after the industrial revolution, standardization is the norm almost everywhere. In response, people are feeling the need to differentiate themselves. Consumers increasingly value craftsmanship, and personalized products are becoming a new trend. Coca-Cola bottles with names on them and customizable Adidas sneakers are just the tip of the mass-customization iceberg.

3D printing meets the need for personalization perfectly since it allows you to make whatever you want, whenever you want it. It’s the production technique of the future, allowing almost unlimited freedom. Additionally, 3D printing might be a low-impact, sustainable solution – there is no visible waste and no need for transport, warehouses, malls, and packaging of anything but the raw material. So is 3D printing really the environmentally friendly production method we’ve all been waiting for?

How sustainable is it really? Running the numbers

To answer this question, we need to look at the entire life cycle of both 3D-printed products and products created by traditional production techniques such as CNC milling and injection molding. A life cycle assessment undertaken by sustainability researcher Jeremy Faludi shows that the situation is not as black and white as one might hope. Certain types of 3D printers actually waste a lot of material. For example, inkjet 3D printers waste up to 45% of their polymeric ink. This was a big eye-opener for me.

3D printing turns out to be a great example of the way we need to consider any new solution that’s introduced as the hottest new sustainable thing. 3D printing can be a solution to sustainability problems with traditional manufacturing, but we shouldn’t overlook the highly efficient technology developed during the Industrial Revolution. Therefore, we have to look at the total environmental cost and benefit before we are able to judge its impacts.

As sustainability experts, we need to remain wary. We need real, hard data on any new production method or sustainable solution, so we can use well-known and reliable methods to determine and compare its total environmental impacts.

Ellen Meijer

Senior Consultant

My background in industrial design made it clear to me that the current system of consumption and disposal cannot be maintained in the long run. I quickly became interested in quantifying sustainability, so that well-supported decisions can be made in our move towards a more sustainable world. LCA provides the ability to focus on the facts.

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