3D printing saves the world, Part 2

How one process may single-handedly solve some of society’s greatest problems.

3D printer

Our previous installment discussed how 3D printing is having a significant impact on education, healthcare, and humanitarian relief. Continuing on, let’s examine how the process is helping to reduce pollution, as well as to protect soldiers and civilians from explosives.

The Environment

Shipping and logistics

Part 1 detailed how 3D printing will reduce the shipping and logistics of pills and humanitarian relief, but this trend looks like it is going to become a lot bigger. Ing, the bank and financial service corporation, predicts that printing could cut trade between countries by 40%: “For now it has very little effect on cross-border trade. This will change once high speed 3D printing makes mass production with 3D printers economically viable. The first technical steps have already been taken…3D printers use far less labor, reducing the need to import intermediate and final goods from low wage countries.”

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Yale journal explores environmental and health impact of 3D printing technologies

As a bourgeoning technology with a world of potential, 3D printing is regularly referred to as the manufacturing technology of the future, and is hailed as having many environmental benefits over existing mass production processes.

And while some of its environmental advantages are difficult to deny—3D printing has, after all, opened up unprecedented possibilities for customized, local production—a new series of articles published in Yale’s Journal of Industrial Ecology suggest that the sustainable potential and environmental impact of 3D printing technologies are not quite as defined as many companies would like consumers to believe.

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Who needs the Paris Climate Accords when you have 3D printing?

Al Gore’s new “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power” has him haranguing leaders who resist the Paris climate accords. Without stringent controls, he says, corporate greed will spew out carbon emissions and destroy the ecosystem. The only path to a sustainable world, he insists, lies in stepped-up government action.

That’s questionable on its face, partly because many companies have pledged to reduce emissions regardless of regulation. But the more important story is that new digital manufacturing technologies are going to substantially reduce pollution as a matter of course, whether companies wish it or not.

At the center of these technologies is 3D printing, which uses digital files to drive smaller, more flexible production lines than are economical with conventional manufacturing. 3D printing is still developing and is only now spreading to mass production. But in the next five to 10 years it should account for a sizable share of industry. As it matures, it will improve companies’ environmental performance in multiple ways.

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