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3-D Printing Lifecycle Shown More Environmentally Friendly

Joshua Pearce

Joshua Pearce holding 3-D printed item, and 3-D printer in background (Michigan Technological University)

Materials scientists at Michigan Technological University in Houghton found that in a lifecycle analysis of production processes, distributed three-dimensional printing can have a smaller environmental impact than conventional manufacturing. Michigan Tech’s Joshua Pearce and graduate student Megan Kreiger published their findings online in a recent advance issue of the journal ACS Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering.

Three-dimensional printing puts down multiple layers of plastic or other materials to make thousands of household or industrial items. Many designs and specifications that provide precise instructions for the printers are available and downloadable online, often free of charge.

Pearce and Kreiger estimated the energy use of printing three items with a RepRap, a home/hobbyist device for making prototype objects. The RepRap is a free, open-source 3-D printer that is also self-replicating, in that a RepRap device can produce another RepRap device. The researchers then compared those energy estimates with energy calculations for producing and shipping the same items with conventional manufacturing methods.

The three items in the Michigan Tech analysis were a children’s building block, a water spout, and a manual orange or lemon juicer. The researchers computed start-to-finish energy needs from raw materials extraction through one of two end-points: entry into the U.S. for items made overseas, or printing at home on a RepRap.

Pearce and Kreiger computed as well the costs of using two types of plastic in the 3-D printer filaments: acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) and polylactic acid (PLA). Both materials are polymers, although PLA can be produced from renewable feedstocks, such as corn starch, and is biodegradable. In addition, the researchers calculated the environmental demand of using solar energy to power the 3-D printers.

The researchers found producing the three items at home with a RepRap reduces cumulative energy demand from 41 to 64 percent using PLA plastics, and up to 74 percent when the printers are powered with solar energy. ABS requires somewhat more energy because of the higher temperatures needed in the device’s extruder and print bed.

In some cases the nature of 3-D printing makes it the more energy-efficient method. For example, Pearce notes in a university statement, “Children’s blocks are normally made of solid wood or plastic,” while 3-D printed blocks can be made hollow, using much less material.

In July 2013, Pearce’s research group published an economic lifecycle analysis of 3-D printing and found for many families 3-D printing could pay for itself in as little as a few months, even when producing only a small number of items at home.

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