3D printing is increasingly being heralded as the Next Big Thing. In October 2012, a bureau service called Shapeways opened a “factory of the future” in New York capable of 3D printing up to five million objects a year. In his State of the Union address, President Obama subsequently highlighted the potential for 3D printing “to revolutionize how we make almost everything”. As 2013 has progressed, we’ve even seen Nike debut a football boot with a 3D printed cleat, 3D printing support natively integrated into Windows 8.1, Amazon.com open a 3D printing section, and Staples offer 3D printers in its US stores. For Christmas 2013, Selfridges in London will also be selling 3D printers, as well as offering a scanning service that will allow grandparents to have a printout of their grandchildren on the mantelpiece.
In a nutshell, 3D printers turn computer models into real, solid objects by building them up in a great many very thin layers. For years 3D printing has been used to create industrial prototypes, but this really is just the tip of the iceberg of the technology’s potential. Already it is possible to 3D print final products in over 200 materials that include various types of plastics, metals and ceramics. As the technology continues to mature, we should therefore expect 3D printing to increasingly be used as a final manufacturing method.
In addition to permitting the production of highly customized products that could not necessarily be produced via traditional methods, 3D printing offers the potential to reap significant environmental savings and in particular to help us rise to the looming challenge of Peak Oil. Not least, because 3D printing is additive rather than subtractive, it will allow us to consume and transport fewer raw materials. Some companies have already recognized this potential, with Rolls Royce now spearheading a European Union project called MERLIN that hopes to save materials by using 3D printing in the manufacture of civil aircraft engines. At present, using subtractive manufacturing methods, the production of a 1 ton aircraft engine can consume over 6 ton of metal. In contrast, using additive manufacturing techniques, it is hoped to produce engines with close to a 100 per cent materials utilization,
And talking of aircraft, another initiative, called the SAVINGS Project, has been investigating the use of 3D printing to reduce the weight of aircraft components. As it reported in February 2012, just by 3D printing lighter seat buckles, the project has demonstrated that 3.3 million liters of aviation fuel could be saved in the life of the average passenger aircraft.
3D printers do of course consume raw materials, and at present these are often oil-based resins or plastics. This said, many 3D printers are already capable of producing objects out of a bioplastic such as polylactic acid (PLA). Recent developments in synthetic biology also mean that, within a few years, it will be possible to ferment bioplastics directly from corn, sugar beat or algae. By the time Peak Oil arrives, it may therefore be possible to grow local 3D printing supplies. In ten or twenty years time, it may even be common for retail outlets and some homes to cultivate vats of algae and synthetic bacteria in their yards or gardens, and which will serve as organic 3D printing supplies.
As another alternative, it may soon be possible for 3D printers to manufacture new objects from household waste. For example, a fantastic project called Filabot has created a reclaimer that will grind up waste plastics and turn them into 3D printing filament. By the time consumer 3D printing goes mainstream, such recycling technology may even be built-in to many models. Both garbage and old prints will therefore be able to be recycled into new items. Once again, increasingly precious oil will be saved.
The 3D Printing Revolution is also likely to save resources by increasing the number of items that will be able to be repaired. Today, many broken products end up in landfill simply because spare parts are not available. But in future, many spare parts will be able to be stored digitally online and printed out on demand. Alternatively, broken parts will be able to be scanned, mended digitally in a computer, and a replacement part 3D printed. Indeed as Jay Leno recently explained in Popular Mechanics, when he needs a spare part for a 100 year old car, he already just scans and 3D prints.
The final key environmental benefit of 3D printing will be the way in which it will empower localization. Today, most manufactured goods are transported long distances and contain components made in many parts of the world. Almost everything we buy therefore burns a significant quantity of oil in transportation. The mass application of 3D printing to enable local ‘materialization on demand’ could therefore help change this currently wasteful reality by allowing objects to be transported digitally over the Internet, and then printed out in local stores or even at home. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we have increasingly relied on complex and dedicated production technologies that have had to be centralized far away from where most people live. But as the 3D Printing Revolution takes hold, we may enter a new era in which local production starts to challenge the scandalously unsustainable blight of the current globalization craze
More information on how 3D printing, both generally and environmentally, can be found in Christopher Barnatt’s books 3D Printing: the Next Industrial Revolution” (2013)“, and “Seven Ways to Fix the World” (2012)