3D Printing Is Greener Than Conventional Production

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports – Your Universe Online

A new study finds that 3D printing of plastic products is not only cheaper, but also greener, because it releases less carbon dioxide than producing things en masse in a factory and shipping those products to a warehouse.

Michigan Technological University’s Joshua Pearce conducted the study using a RepRap 3D printer designed for home use, which works by melting filament, usually plastic, and depositing it layer by layer in a specific pattern.

While conventional wisdom would suggest that mass-producing plastic products would consume less energy per unit than making them one at a time on a 3D printer, Pearce and his team found the opposite was true.

“It’s more efficient to melt things in a cauldron than in a test tube,” he said.

The researchers conducted life cycle impact analyses on three products: an orange juicer, a children’s building block and a waterspout. The cradle-to-gate analysis of energy use went from raw material extraction to one of two endpoints: entry into the US for an item manufactured overseas or printing it a home on a 3D printer.

Pearce and his team found that making the items on a basic 3D printer required 41 percent to 64 percent less energy than producing them in a factory and shipping them to the US.

Some of the savings come from using fewer raw materials.

“Children’s blocks are normally made of solid wood or plastic,” said Pearce, an associate professor of materials science, electrical engineering and computer engineering.

But 3D printed blocks can be made partially or even completely hollow, requiring much less plastic.

Pearce’s team ran their analysis with two common types of plastic filament used in 3D printing, including polylactic acid (PLA). PLA is made from renewable resources, such as cornstarch, making it a greener alternative to petroleum-based plastics. The researchers also conducted a separate analysis on products made using solar-powered 3D printers, which drove down the environmental impact even further.

“The bottom line is, we can get substantial reductions in energy and CO2 emissions from making things at home,” Pearce said.

“And the home manufacturer would be motivated to do the right thing and use less energy, because it costs so much less to make things on a 3D printer than to buy them off the shelf or on the Internet.”

The study is published in the journal ACS Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering. Pearce’s previous work on the low cost of 3D printing can be found here.