3D printing #2

Considering social and environmental impacts

By Chris Sutton - 21.04.14

Following our Brighton Three-thinkers Business Club event on 3D printing this blog looks at the technology from a sustainability perspective.

Like any technology, 3D printing will come with its own set of environmental and social impacts. Although intuitively there seem to be potential environmental benefits, there is not a strong evidence base yet on which to make definitive assessments.[i] As an emerging technology particularly at the consumer end of the market, the extent to which 3D printing will have positive or negative environmental impacts depends on what it is used for, the supply chains that evolve to distribute it, and the societal culture that develops around it.

The fact that sustainability is being discussed in depth now while the technology is still nascent bodes well for developing the sector in a sustainable way.

This is my summary of the main environmental and social considerations that are emerging:

  • Transportation

    Reduced environmental impacts from freight is generally suggested as a benefit from 3D printing, as it enables goods to be produced near to their markets. However raw materials still need to be transported from somewhere, so transport costs aren’t eliminated. While the use of locally produced input materials would reduce this impact, at the moment there doesn’t seem to be any research investigating whether the distribution of raw materials to many small scale ‘makers’ is inherently more sustainable than conventional manufacturing supply chains that deliver finished goods.  

  • Energy

    For industrial scale 3D printing, there is no clear conclusion in terms of energy use with some additive manufacturing techniques being very energy intensive.[ii] At a smaller scale however, 3D printers are relatively energy efficient and are estimated to draw around the same amount of electricity as a laptop computer.[iii]

    The amount of energy 3D printers use will also be dependent on how we use them, with the lowest environment impact coming from using the fewest number of tools to make the largest number of products. With 3D printers best suited to individual items and small production runs, 3D Printer shops or Fab-labs which can maximise the number of jobs per printer are likely to provide a more environmentally friendly solution than individual printer ownership.[iv]   

  • Materials

    Potentially the most significant environmental impacts will be derived from the materials used in the 3D manufacturing process. In a recent report by the Royal Academy of Engineering, Dr Chris Tuck, an academic specialising in Additive Manufacturing at Nottingham University identified material as AM’s biggest opportunity and biggest challenge. It is a challenge because although innovative materials will provide exciting new opportunities, many polymers used are not recyclable and have already used large amounts of energy in the processes used to create them.[v]

    For desktop printing the main source materials currently are ABS, a polymer derived from petroleum which is not recyclable and PLA, a recyclable polymer often based on corn-starch which is. The extent to which sustainably sourced input materials utilising local, recycled and recyclable and waste supplies are developed as the main inputs into 3D printing, will go a long way to determine whether or not 3D printing emerges as a sustainable technology.

    Where materials used in 3D printing do offer an environmental advantage is in the quantity of material used. The layering process enables products to be produced at different ‘fill’ levels. A recent study looking at the manufacture of a child’s building block, a watering can spout and a citrus juicer found that products produced using 3D printing embodied less energy compared to conventional manufacturing when the fill level was less than 79% and was vastly better at a fill level of less than 25% which the authors argued was easily achieved.[vi]

  • Consumer attitudes

    Much of the environmental impact will be dependent on how we as users/consumers/makers adopt 3D printing as a society. Will it become part of a throwaway consumer society as we make and discard trivial ‘knick-knacks’, or will the technology foster more sustainable production as it facilitates easy reproduction of broken parts for everyday objects and up-cycling of old products into new ones.[vii]

  • Social cohesion

    As well as having an environmental impact, how we use 3D Printing will have implications for how we interact with each other. A recent blog by Oliver Reichhardt at the RSA raised concerns about 3D printing eroding social interaction and undermining community cohesion as we all self-produce goods in our own homes.[viii] However, an alternative scenario included among a range of options explored by a Lancaster University study, is of a ‘community craft’ movement facilitated by the technology, which might have the potential to enhance social cohesion. [ix]

  • Intellectual property and governance

    The emergence of 3D printing shifts control of production and creates similar intellectual property issues for designers of manufactured products that have been experienced in other creative industries. The difference is that it is the distribution of 3D designs rather than music or film that will become increasingly easy and widespread. The implications of this extend beyond intellectual property, with the creation and dissemination of a design for a working 3D printed gun already providing an example of the potential challenges of regulation.[x]

  • Procurement

    A key way of influencing sustainability is to purchase from suppliers that understand the environmental and social impacts of their sectors and which make creating a positive impact in these areas integral to how they do business. We call these businesses ‘three-thinkers’ because they prioritise people and planet alongside profit.

    At this early stage of development it is not easy to identify 3D Printing suppliers that have ethical policies or which are consciously working towards machines that have lower impacts, for example by using recycled input materials. However it is always worth asking questions of suppliers and checking whether they work to the values you uphold in your own operation. If you are a ‘three-thinking’ 3D printing business or know of one, please get in touch as we’d love to here from you.  

Also in this blog series:

3D printing #1 - how the technology has developed and where it might be headed



[i] Olson, R. (2013) ‘3D Printing – A Boon or a Bane’. The Environmental Forum. Vol.30. No.6. November/December 2013. p35

[ii] Olson, R. (2013) ‘3D Printing – A Boon or a Bane’. The Environmental Forum. Vol.30. No.6. November/December 2013. p36

[iii] Prof. Joshua Pearce, Michigan Technological University, quoted in Kovac, K (2013) ‘How green is 3D Printing’. ECOS. CSIRO Publishing, Australia. Available at http://www.ecosmagazine.com/?paper=EC13276 (Accessed 1/4/2014)

[iv] Faludi, J (2013) ‘Is 3D Printing an environmental win’ Greenbiz.com 19th July 2013. Available at:
http://www.greenbiz.com/blog/2013/07/19/3d-printing-environmental-win (Accessed 1/4/2014)

[v] Royal Academy of Engineering (2013) ‘Additive Manufacturing: Opportunities and Constraints’. A summary of a roundtable forum held on 23 May 2013 hosted by the Royal Academy of Engineering. Available at: https://www.raeng.org.uk/news/publications/list/reports/Additive_Manufacturing.pdf (Accessed 01/04/2014)

[vi] Kovac, K (2013) ‘How green is 3D Printing’. ECOS. CSIRO Publishing, Australia. Available at http://www.ecosmagazine.com/?paper=EC13276 (Accessed 1/4/2014). Original research:
Krieger et al (2013) Environmental Life Cycle Analysis of Distributed Three-Dimensional Printing and Conventional Manufacturing of Polymer Products. ACS Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering, Vol1. No.12. pp1511-1519 (subscription required)

[vii] Olson, R. (2013) ‘3D Printing – A Boon or a Bane’. The Environmental Forum. Vol.30. No.6. November/December 2013. p37

[viii] Oliver Reichardt ,RSA Blog, 24th January 2014. http://www.rsablogs.org.uk/author/oliver-reichardt/ (Accessed 02/04/2014)

[ix] Birtchnell, T et al. (2013) ‘Freight miles: The Impacts of 3D Printing on Transport and Society’. Lancaster University. Available at: http://eprints.lancs.ac.uk/66198/. (Accessed 21/04/2014)

[x] Chalmers, J (2013), ‘3D printing: not yet a new industrial revolution, but its impact will be huge’ The Guardian, Comment is free, 10th December 2013. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/11/3d-printing-not-yet-a-new-industrial-revolution-but-its-impact-will-be-huge (Accessed 2/04/2014)