3D printing is tres cool, and promises to do to manufacturing what file-sharing did to the music industry. But is additive manufacturing a more sustainable approach to manufacturing? My Clean Break column this week explores that question…
Eighteen years ago I got it into my head that I was going to start my own student magazine. I borrowed $2,000 from a friend so I could purchase a black-and-white laser printer from Hewlett-Packard.
Today, for less than $200, you can get a lighter, smaller, higher-quality colour printer that also functions as a copier, scanner and fax device.
And what can you purchase today for $2,000? On Friday, 3D Systems Inc. of Rock Hill, S.C., began shipping a 3D printing system called Cube that can be purchased for only $1,299 (U.S.), making it one of the lowest-cost printers of its kind in the world.
Brooklyn, N.Y.-based MakerBot Industries will already sell you its Thing-O-Matic unassembled 3D printer kit for $1,099. It sells another device, called the Replicator, fully assembled for $1,749.
For those not familiar with 3D printers, these amazing devices don’t just print words and images on paper. They magically make things — physical three-dimensional objects — layer by layer, using a growing array of heat- or light-activated materials sold in cartridges.
The objects can either be designed from scratch with software or be based on 3D scans of existing items, anything from Elvis busts and pieces of jewelry to your own head.
3D Systems’ Cube and MakerBot’s Replicator mostly make plastic toys and trinkets, but higher-end 3D printers worth tens of thousands of dollars can use more advanced materials, including a variety of hard and flexible plastics, glass, metal powders, and even edible ingredients like chocolate. The list of materials is growing rapidly.
It’s all part of an emerging and disruptive trend called additive manufacturing, which began as an inexpensive and quick way to make one-off prototypes but, as costs fall and performance improves, is now expanding into on-demand manufacturing.
“There are now hundreds and hundreds of companies in 3D printing,” said economist and author Jeremy Rifkin in a recent interview. He considers 3D printing part of an emerging Internet-empowered era of “distributed capitalism” that is going to dramatically change how the world conducts business. “You can print out an airplane wing or part of an automobile — whatever you want.”
Like that necklace your colleague in China is wearing during your Skype video session? She can scan it, email you the coding, and within the hour you can print out your own copy.
Artificial limbs and implants? Not such a crazy idea. Last year, doctors in the Netherlands famously made a new titanium jawbone implant for one woman. San Francisco-based Bespoke Innovations uses 3D printing to make exact replicas of feet, legs and other lost body parts at one-tenth the cost of traditional prosthetic manufacturing.
Rifkin emphasized that additive manufacturing is a more efficient and potentially more sustainable way of making goods.
“With traditional manufacturing there’s a lot of loss, because you take big amounts of material and you whittle them down. So you start off with lots of material and you end up wasting lots of material,” he explained.
“But with additive manufacturing the material is added layer by layer. You have no loss. You actually use one-tenth of the material.”
That’s a huge bonus in an increasingly resource-constrained world.
So if it’s so efficient and far less wasteful, can we call it “green” manufacturing? It certainly has that potential, particularly as it relates to high-end printers that make parts and products for industrial use.
No longer will companies need warehouses full of spare parts. These items can simply be scanned, coded and saved in a database. When a company or its customer needs a part — even for products that have been long discontinued — the item can be downloaded and printed out on demand.
But I can’t help thinking about the Jevons paradox as it relates to 3D printing. English economist William Stanley Jevons argued in the late 1800s that efficiencies enabled by new technologies, which make goods more accessible and cheaper to produce, are often neutralized by our tendency to consume more of these goods.
As the cost of 3D printing falls and the devices become a common feature in every home, is this going to encourage impulse buying? Will we be inclined to print out every little doodad and trinket, article of clothing, fashion accessory or toy just because we can? How much energy will this collectively consume?
Just go to Thingiverse.com and you’ll already find a database full of mostly useless objects you can download and print out on your 3D printer. Pirate Bay, the popular torrent site used to download pirated music, movies and software, announced in January it has created a new category called “physibles” dedicated to 3D printable objects.
So much for the protection of intellectual property. If it can be scanned it can be ripped off. As one Google executive once said, “Think of it as a China on your desktop.” Alternatively, Walmart in your home.
Exciting. Also scary.
In the end, one can hope that resource constraints and rising energy costs will draw out the best of additive manufacturing and discourage the kind of mindless, rampant consumerism that has made a mess of our planet.
Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.