Is 3D Printing Sustainable?


A look at how developments in technology are factoring into sustainability, gender rights, traceability and privacy and what we can expect from an industry that has become so much a part of our everydayness.

Though sometimes touted as the sustainable manufacturing model of the future, challenges — and opportunities — remain in making 3D printing “sustainable.”
Zero-waste additive manufacturing, on-demand production, local distribution — it’s understandable why 3D printing looks to some like the panacea which will cure our current manufacturing ills. Especially when considering the sustainability (or lack thereof) in producing goods on a massive scale in one location then shipping them around the world to possibly be purchased by consumers, the alternative offered by 3D printing inspires real hope.

“If you design an iPhone case, you have to make the mold,” posits Shapeways Co-Founder Marleen Vogelaar, referring to the current standard of injection moulding manufacturing.
“You make 20,000 of them and they end up being shitty, so no one wants them. Then you have 19,800 left that you’ve got to sell or dump or burn… Besides the fact that you’re bankrupt, it’s very unsustainable,” Vogelaar adds.

garbage cans
She contrasts that scenario with the highly iterative process that products can go through on Shapeways.
“The great thing about 3D printing is, because you have feedback between the consumer and the designer, you get to a point where maybe you only have three bad iPhone cases and the fourth is great and that’s what is selling — it’s actually being used.”
Iterative design, which is based on a cyclical process of testing and refining a product, is possible with 3D printing thanks to its on-demand capabilities: I design an iPhone case; you purchase one and find a flaw; I redesign it so the next customer isn’t stuck with a dud. On-demand production circumvents the trap of mass manufacturing goods to achieve economies of scale — only to discover there is no demand for your mass of goods.

iphone case

Along with the ability to design leaner, lighter, more efficient products and the opportunity to manufacture them closer to the point of consumption, on-demand production completes a sort of trinity of sustainability in 3D printing. Yet a truly sustainable future relies largely on faith.

“It’s really uncharted territory right now,” says Brooklyn Fashion+Design Accelerator Research Fellow Francis Bitonti of 3D printing’s sustainability. The fashion designer is best known for the 3D printed gown he created with Shapeways and Michael Schmidt Studios in 2013 for Dita Von Teese. And while Bitonti remains an evangelist of the technology  (“I have no doubt that this will become a trillion dollar industry,” he says, “I think it will change the way everything is manufactured”), he is unconvinced that its future will necessarily be 100-percent green.

dita von teese gown

“One of the big roadblocks that I see is in the production of the materials themselves,” Bitonti says, referring to the raw materials used by 3D printers and how they are produced by only a few manufacturers. It’s a concern that Marleen Vogelaar shares.
“If you have a machine of a certain brand — especially when you have industrial-grade machines — you basically buy the powder or resin from the same supplier. … There’s only very few because it’s such a small market. There’s not that many places in the world that make plastic for 3D printers. It’s very, very concentrated.”

From a sustainability perspective, even worse than the materials’ distribution by a few suppliers is the nature of the material itself. “There’s quite a few materials out there that are not sustainable,” Vogelaar explains. “Especially [stereolithography] materials and some of the acrylic polymers — you can’t even touch them when they’re in a non-solid state because they’re toxic.”

Stereolithography is just one of many 3D printing processes and uses an ultraviolet laser or similar power source to cure photopolymer resin. Alternatively, most of Shapeways’ products are nylon, which is not dangerous to humans — though it is derived from petroleum, raising other concerns about sustainability. Even polylactic acid, a biodegradable plastic used by many desktop printers, has its issues. Made from corn, its widespread use in 3D printing could conceivably raise food prices. And let’s not even get into recycling.
“I’m not thrilled, not over-the-top about recycling as the answer to our problems because it hasn’t been yet and I don’t know why it would be for 3D printing,” says Francis Bitonti.

If this seems like an impossible puzzle, a series of never-ending passages in a maze that may not have an exit, you can take solace in the relatively insignificant impact of 3D printing on the environment.
“The amount of tons that are used globally for 3D printing compared to the amount of tons in plastic used for other applications around the world, it’s maybe a thousandth, thousandth, thousandth of a percent,” says Vogelaar. “It’s nothing.”

“Manufacturing is a trillion-dollar industry, and if you look at [3D printing] relative to that … well, does it really matter compared to the problems that manufacturing is causing right now?” echoes Bitonti.

Thankfully his realism isn’t masking complacency, as he adds, “I think everyone should be keeping an eye on it, but I think it’s a little too early to worry.”
Yet Debera Johnson, executive director of the BF+DA disagrees. “It’s never too early to start figuring out how to reduce environmental impacts,” she says. “If we solve the problems now, the solutions will scale alongside the industry.”

Images: MetalurgiamontemarO, boo_ist_online, Unsplash