3D printing is a process of manufacturing that involves the creation of a three-dimensional solid object from a computer digital file. If you ever wondered how some of the complex and cool 3D objects come about, then you might have found an answer in 3D printing. 3D printing allows us to bring into form the graphical designs on a computer screen into physical objects that we can feel and hold with our hands. The printing process is also known as additive manufacturing because basically, the process involves adding thousands of thin layers on top of other layers until the object takes shape.
The environmental impact of 3D printing
While 3D printing is often associated with all the cool stuff and amazing works, there’s the other side of it that is rarely mentioned. Most people will overlook the processes involved and their effects on the environment such as the energy costs involved, chemicals, plastics used among other non-biodegradable products.
We are still a long way off from achieving clean manufacturing despite this new and exciting technology. Perhaps in the future, 3D printing will be one of the cleanest manufacturing methods to help reduce the carbon footprint as well as offer solutions to the manufacturing industry. Despite its revolutionary approach to manufacturing, 3D printing is not particularly eco-friendly for the following reasons.
3D printing can be described as an energy-guzzling process. It has been estimated that manufacturing uses up to 50 times more electricity than traditional methods of milling or drilling. This is according to numerous research on the energy required to mold the same object. In addition, various processes involved such as fusing metal powder consume hundreds of times more power than conventional machining techniques. Since metal is often used in 3D printing, it requires extreme heat making it more energy-intensive compared to traditional methods of manufacturing.
The overall process consumes a lot of energy vis-a-vis the number of products that are actually produced. At every stage of the supply chain, 3D printing had the highest energy consumption according to findings by the Atkins Project and another research was done by the University of California. At the material production stage, additive manufacturing has the lowest carbon output despite it being high in the production stage. Energy efficiency of the 3D printing process also hinges on numerous factors such as the raw materials used, the process of manufacturing, location and transportation and distribution channels used.
A considerable amount of plastic waste is produced during three-dimensional printing which cannot be recycled or reused. This means they are going to end up in the landfill in one form or another. Especially waste in the form of plastic filaments. Some printing materials used are also non-biodegradable which makes it un-ecofriendly. This poses a challenge to try and find materials that are eco-friendly and effective for the production process. Fortunately, certain material such as PLA bioplastic is more eco-friendly and less toxic. This plastic shows a great promise and will certainly improve the chances of an environmental friendly 3D printing.
You would be wrong to assume that 3D printing is emission-free while in reality, it produces fumes that are as toxic as gas stoves or cigarettes. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and particles are given off from the printing devices which in turn have potential negative health effects. These toxic fumes are emitted when the plastic is melted at temperatures reaching up to 320 °C and extruded through the printing nozzle and onto the moving base plate where the foreordained 3D object takes form. The ultrafine particles produced in the printing process have been known to cause cardiovascular and respiratory diseases when one is exposed to them for a long time. In addition, CO2 emissions in running a 3D printer contribute to global warming because it traps heat and therefore increases the temperature.
E-Waste recycling of 3D Printers
E-waste recycling is providing a sustainable solution to the dumping of electronics. Most electronics that have been used or rejected, especially in Europe and North America, end up in the landfills or are burned like other garbage. This is particularly unhealthy for the environment because of the fumes produced and CO2 emissions. To curb this problem, e-waste recycling enables innovators to come up with new electronic gadgets from old 3D printers, computers, scanners and other electronics.
This trend is well embraced in certain parts of Africa where most of the unusable, old electronics find their way. Young entrepreneurs and innovators in Africa-Rwanda, Ghana, and Togo, are using these electronic waste to come up with new 3D printers. Usually, various components will be assembled to create a new gadget of choice. A local community hub known as WoeLab has created a 3D printer by scavenging old electronic parts. This new printer known as W.Afate was part of the plan to be used in NASA’s International Space Apps Challenge in Paris.
While 3D printing provides a new perspective in manufacturing, there are certain environmental hurdles that must be overcome before we can fully accept it as clean manufacturing.