Wikipedia describes sustainability in the business world in terms of “sustainable development.”
“Sustainable development is – development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
In my previous blogs, I have explained what is 3D printing. How it’s evolving and the hot chick or the best innovation so far after Johannes Gutenberg invented printing or printing technology 600 years ago.
One of the key objectives of many corporate sustainability initiatives is to reduce waste. Sustainability-conscious companies work hard to reduce the amount of waste they produce throughout their product design and development processes. Improving quality, decreasing packaging, scaling down the sizes, using eco-friendly materials and recycling are all methods that companies use to reduce the waste they generate. Even architectural designers have developed standards to improve how architects approach the challenges associated with achieving sustainability.
On the other hand using 3D printers to build prototypes and scale models can reduce waste. By catching design errors and making changes early and often in the iterative design process, prototypes and 3D printed models reduce the waste streams caused by those errors and design modifications. In architecture, the savings are also dramatic because the scale is so large. When you use prototypes and physical 3D models to innovate and create better designs, you reduce the number of final products that wind up in the trash.
Yet, despite the positive contributions that 3D printing makers to corporate sustainability, there are very real differences in the amount of waste produced by, and in the eco-friendliness of, different 3D printing processes. Some 3D printing systems generate more waste than the printed part material, and because their material is so expensive, that waste comes at an enormous cost. Support material, shaving uneven surfaces, dissolving chemicals, etc. all contribute to the total cost of 3D printing. These systems result in significantly higher hidden costs, particularly as that waste gets flushed down the drain.
In terms of materials used in the 3D printing process, many 3D printing systems use plastics, nylons and other build materials and toxic post-processing chemicals that create fumes and can’t be recycled – nor can the 3D printed prototypes that they produce be recycled.
So, are 3D printing and sustainability mutually exclusive? As of now yes. Here I must say further innovation is needed to develop 3D printers that can use recycled materials. 3D printer manufacturers have to come out of plastic and resin as the materials for 3D printing to more sustainable materials. If 3D printer innovators or developers take easy and low-cost plastic and refuse to look beyond such materials, then the so-called 3D printing innovation of the century will become a curse on the environment. The large part of the world is just wake up to plastic bags, and bottles, now they have to come to terms with millions of 3D models, made to suit the moment will end up in landfill soon enough.
At the same time, if retailers and manufacturers align themselves and help reduce the transportation, hence, the energy and pollution costs, that will be a blessing. So all in all 3D printing is an idea that has arrived, having said that, keeping sustainability in mind is key to use the technology in a beneficial way for all.