3D printers are the most powerful machines ever invented because they can make finished products—with all their parts—fully assembled. They may also be the greenest machines ever built.
Driven by a digital blueprint, these printers build layer upon layer of fused ceramics, glass, sand, plastic, metal, or other materials. In contrast, traditional manufacturing depends on assembly lines, lots of low-cost labour and mass production. Today, much of that manufacturing takes place in far-off lands, and products must be shipped in long and complex supply chains that extend around the world. All of this has a large energy footprint.
3D printing (also known as additive manufacturing) eliminates assembly lines because a single machine can make an entire part or product, and one worker can run an entire room full of 3D printers. 3D printing 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.
In addition, it is no more energy-expensive, per part, to 3D print one part vs. 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 is an energy hog.