One Machine Does It All
3D printers are the most powerful machines ever invented because they can make finished products, with all their parts, fully assembled. Driven by a digital blueprint, they build layer upon layer of fused plastic, metal, ceramics, glass, sand, or other materials. They may also be the greenest machines ever built.
3D Printing Beats Traditional Manufacturing
Traditional manufacturing depends on assembly lines, lots of low-cost labor, and mass production. Today, much of that manufacturing takes place in far off lands, from which products are shipped in long and complex supply chains that extend around the world. All of this has a big energy footprint. In contrast, 3D printing eliminates assembly lines because a single machine can make an entire part or product, fully assembled, and one worker may run an entire roomful of 3D printers. Also, it is no more energy-expensive, per part, to 3D print one part versus a million parts, to customize every part instead of making them all the same, and to make highly complex parts. Using traditional methods, making complex, one-off, and customized parts was an energy hog. 3D printing also allows parts to be made near the point of need. Regional manufacturing, distributed all over the world, shortens supply chains and reduces shipping and warehousing. These benefits potentially leave smaller energy footprints.
Reducing Energy Footprints
The benefits of 3D printing make it greener than traditional manufacturing in at least three ways. 3D printing uses fewer machines and less material to make a part, uses less energy overall, and can have a much shorter and simpler supply chain than parts made in traditional ways.
Unlike traditional machines, which cut or grind away as much as 90 percent of the feedstock, 3D printers generate less waste because products are made from little more than the amount of material that ends up in the finished part. Because 3D printers make parts layer-by-layer, they use only as much material as needed to make each layer.
Operating 3D printers can also have a smaller energy footprint than operating traditional machines. Some people have argued that 3D printers use more energy to build a part than traditional machines. For example, they say that the lasers and electron beams of metal 3D printers use far more energy than traditional milling and drilling machines. They may be right if you look only at the energy used by the 3D printer, but the all-in energy footprint of 3D printing should be smaller than that of traditional machines. Such all-in costs include the costs of making the manufacturing machines, and the number of machines needed to make the part by traditional methods. Making a part with traditional processes requires multiple machines, all of which have their own energy footprint for manufacturing and shipping the machines themselves. All of those machines also gobble energy while they make parts. By comparison, a product can be 3D printed using far fewer machines, resulting in less overall energy usage. The all-in costs also include the price of the materials, including the quantity wasted by traditional machines.
Even where 3D printing a part uses more energy than traditional methods on a per-part basis, its energy footprint can be lower over the life of the part. For example, the fuel nozzles GE 3D prints for its Leading Edge Aircraft Propulsion aircraft engine are 25% lighter than their traditionally made predecessors. Each LEAP engine contains 19 3D printed fuel nozzles. The lighter parts will save energy, in the form of jet fuel, over the life of the parts. GE expects to 3D print other parts for the LEAP engine, and eventually expects to shave 1000 lbs. from each 6000 lb. engine. Even if more energy is used to make each engine using 3D printing, as compared to traditional methods, the fuel savings over the life of each engine should leave a smaller energy footprint than a traditionally made engine.
Traditional manufacturing is also often done far from where the products are needed and used. The reason for this is that traditional manufacturing requires a lot of labor, so things are made where labor is cheap. But this requires shipping and warehousing. Labor, shipping, and warehousing all have energy footprints. Because far fewer machines and less labor are required to 3D print parts and products, they need not be made in far-off lands, so the energy footprints are reduced if the parts are 3D printed near the point of need.
By using less material and energy, fewer machines and labor, shortening and simplifying supply chains, and reducing shipping and warehousing, 3D printing will help make the world a greener place.
Image Credit: CC by Alan Levine