3D printing has been around for three decades, but only in the last few years has the technology become a serious contender for displacing conventional manufacturing methods now that it can achieve material strength that rivals legacy offerings and can deliver parts in a fraction of the time. As these capabilities mature, hopes have soared for 3D printing’s potential to reduce the environmental footprint of multiple products and processes, and even for it to contribute to an increasingly circular economy. But how close are we to such a reality?
3D printing is a process of making three-dimensional, solid objects from a digital file. With additive manufacturing — the formal name for 3D printing — a printer adds successive layers of material only where needed, layer upon layer, until the three-dimensional object is created. Research firm Statista estimates that the 3D printing market will reach $26.2 billion in value by 2022, factoring in revenue not just from sales of printers and materials, but also from software and related services.
Currently, the process can reduce materials use, waste, energy consumption and transportation emissions under some circumstances. “There are cases where additive manufacturing is best, and some where it’s not,” said Lou Rassey, CEO of additive manufacturing company Fast Radius.