3D printing – sustainable manufacturing?

By Lorrin Windahl.

I came across this pretty cool use of 3D printing the other day – the Planter Brick. The idea behind the concept is that you can create a living wall with the planter bricks and because they are manufactured using a 3D printer, rather than investing in expensive tooling, the bricks can be customised to create different shapes and effects.


Pretty cool idea yeah? According to their creators, Emerging Objects, they have some ‘green’ benefits as well. These include being sound absorbing, filtering surrounding air and mediating a building’s microclimate temperature through evapotranspiration and pollution conversion.


So this got me thinking about 3D printing, or additive manufacturing as it is also known, and whether I think it is a sustainable approach to manufacture. Or more to the point, now that these printers are financially feasible to have in your own home, is this a good thing? Is it green to be able to produce, on a small scale, your own products? Although not produced on a personal 3D printer, the example above certainly suggests it can be. Or does it mean that because people have greater access to small volume manufacturing that they will be producing more ‘stuff’ that they don’t really need?

I guess on the one hand it may not be that sustainable when you think about the small cartridges and spools that the material is supplied in. Like 2D printing, once a cartridge is used it is discarded and replaced. This isn’t very green when you compare it to mass manufacture where the material is ordered in bulk.

Image courtesy of Bespoke Innovations Inc.

Image courtesy of Bespoke Innovations Inc.

On the other hand however, I can see ‘portable’ 3D printing revolutionising areas of socially responsible design. I think 3D printing is a great technology for the potential that it has. To be able to produce a product at the location of where it is needed and when it is needed is a real game changer. 3D printing is already being utilised in areas of medicine, such as the example above of a prosthetic leg by Bespoke Innovations. But this is mostly limited to cities where there is access to large scale machines. Imagine the impact though, when the units become more mobile and affordable, that this technology could have in remote and impoverished regions. In situations, for example, where an amputee requires a prosthesis after stepping on a land mine. If this is the direction that 3D printing is heading than I certainly support and applaud it.


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