An inkjet printer creates a two-dimensional or planar figure using digital information of the desired output. Similarly, 3D printing creates a three-dimensional object, an actual physical material, based on a digital model. This ability to produce products and components by forming successive layers of material under computer control, enabling the creation of objects with almost any shape or geometry makes 3D printing an exciting technology full of potentials in the manufacturing industry.
Because 3D printing creates a product by building its parts layer by layer, it was also called additive manufacturing. In contrast, conventional manufacturing involves subtraction or removal of materials, calling it subtractive manufacturing. For instance, milling is a machine that cuts a section out of a steel block.
Aside from allowing to fabricate complex designs, which were previously geometrically impossible to produce with conventional fabrication techniques, 3D printing boasts of its environmental and sustainability potential with its utilization of significantly lesser materials and producing lesser wastes compared with traditional manufacturing. However, this technology of additive manufacturing is still lacking a deeper understanding of its environmental and sustainability implications.
Yale’s Journal of Industrial Ecology has just released a new issue introducing a brand-new study on this embryonic field of additive manufacturing. It expounds the vital insights of 3D printing’s environmental, energy, and health impacts. It reports that the technology’s environmental implication is dependent on both the configuration and the manner of usage of the machine and materials used.
“The research in this issue shows that it is too early to label 3D printing as the path to sustainable manufacturing. We need to know much more about the material footprints, energy consumption in production, process emissions, and especially the linkages and alignments between the various stages in the production process,” said Reid Lifset, Journal of Industrial Ecology‘s editor-in-chief and co-author of the lead editorial.
In summary, the journal’s special issue talks about:
- life cycle assessments (LCA) of AM processes and products
- investigations of the process energy consumption of AM technologies
- studies of operator exposure to printer emissions and hazardous materials
- examination of the sustainability benefits derived from the complex geometry of parts enabled by the technology
- analysis of supply-chain issues arising from the use of the technology