A new study from Cuboyo investigating the environmental impact of 3D printing has been published, as the cost of desktop 3D printing machines decreases giving more people access to this emerging technology.
The study acknowledges the rise and rise of 3D printing as a conduit for the growing trend of customization, quoting WIRED and The Economist writer Chris Anderson, who said: "Rather than the personal computer, we have personal manufacturing."
As 3D printing has begun to provide designers and consumers with more possibilities for their business or interests, it is has also started to compete with the existing industrial supply chain in terms of cost, speed, and ecological impact.
Furthermore, 3D printing is proving to be more environmentally friendly than traditional manufacturing methods. Most low-cost 3D printers use a raw material called PLA (polylactic acid), a thermoplastic derived from renewable resources. It can save fossil fuel, according to NatureWorks LLC, and reduce waste rather than create it because it is biodegradable. 3D printing may reduce the utility of mass production, because in the latter approach, innovation is restrained by "economies of scale" - the more an item is produced, the cheaper it becomes.
The Cuboyo study uses calculations made by Quantis - an agency specialising in environmental life cycle assessment based in Lausanne, Switzerland and Boston, Massachussetts -
comparing the injection moulding method with three types of 3D printers:
- The Makerbot Replicator 2 - Low cost (<$2,500, Medium quality)
- The Objet 30Pro - Moderate Cost (<$15,000, Medium-High Quality)
- The Objet Eden Series2/3 - Expensive (<$100,000, High Quality).
The study makes several assumptions regarding mass production and mass customisation:
- That mass production refers to the injection moulding method.
- Mass production is defined by: one variant of an object replicated one million times.
- Mass customisation is defined by: one million of variants of an object are replicated only once.
- The frontier between mass customisation and mass production is defined at 1,000 variants replicated 1,000 times.
- For injection moulding and 3D printing, objects are made of Polypropylene (PP) and Polylactic acid (PLA), respectively.
- The object analysed in this study is an iPhone 5 case with a weight of 12 grams.
- The printing time is approximately 50 minutes, with electricity consumption derived from European UCTE consumption data (Union for the Coordination of Transmission of Electricity).
- The lifecycle of the 3D printer is calculated at with five years at the rate of 50 prints per year.
- The electricity requirement for the production (and the recycling) for Objet30Pro has been estimated to be three times higher and 20 times higher for the Objet Eden Series 2/3 than for the Makerbot Replicator 2.
- Ecoinvent 2.2 parameters have also been taken to conduct this study.
The study shows that, on the one hand, classic manufacturing is not adapted for low-volume production of different objects in terms of environmental impact. On the other hand, the 3D printing technique cannot compete with injection moulding for high-volume production. The environmental impact of 3D printing is also influenced by the electrical consumption of the type of 3D printer used. Higher quality 3D printers (Objet Eden Series2/3) tend to have a higher electrical consumption compared to low cost 3D printers (Makerbot Replicator 2).
3D printing technology tends to be ecologically interesting for low-volume production (<1000 parts) compared to traditional manufacturing (injection molding). 3D printing thus controls environmental impact in low volume over many different variants.
The study shows that 3D printing has a reduced environmental impact compared to injection moulding for low-volume production (<300 replicas) independent of the quality of 3D printer used. Thus, the low cost 3D printer opens up a new window for highly customised/low volume fabrication of objects with a controlled environmental impact on carbon dioxide emission.
The study stated: "3D printing is being promoted as the technology that will lead us into the next industrial revolution. Clothing, electronics, replacement body parts, biological components and even entire functional organs will be able to be built in the near future. Consumers should be aware of and prepared to enter the third industrial revolution governed by mass customisation and a lower environmental impact."