3D printing's environmental impact: not what you'd expect

Here's how sustainable 3D printing really is, and what operators can do to reduce their environmental impact.
Jon Bruner

How sustainable is 3D printing? Ask most experts and you’ll get some hand-waving: it creates less waste than machining and reduces transportation energy, but many materials aren’t recyclable. All of those factors turn out to be overstated when they’re subjected to careful study.

Jeremy Faludi has done the careful study, and has come to some nuanced and surprising conclusions about the environmental sustainability of 3D printing. He’s an assistant professor of sustainable design at TU Delft, and for the last several years he’s studied the environmental impact of 3D printing. Faludi’s core takeaway: energy usage—during idling and production, and embodied in printers from their point of manufacture—is the largest component of 3D printing’s environmental impact.

In this episode of the Digital Factory Podcast, Faludi and I talk about how total environmental impact is measured using sustainability models that incorporate factors as disparate as mineral depletion, endangered-species eradication, and climate change; the factors that drive 3D printing’s impact; and what operators can do to reduce their impact (counterintuitively, run your 3D printer more).

Join us at the Formlabs User Summit, in Berlin on October 1. You'll learn from 3D printing leaders in presentations and panels, and network with your fellow Formlabs power users.


Favorite tool

Faludi’s refurbished Macbook. Using an old thing is often more sustainable than buying a new thing, unless there’s a big difference in power consumption (if you’ve still got a plasma TV, go out and buy an LCD TV right away, says Faludi: it’ll use less energy when it’s on than a plasma TV does when it’s off).


Read the Digital Factory Report

The future of manufacturing is digital. We explore the technologies that are transforming fabrication, from advanced 3D printing to AI-assisted design, and get to know the leaders who are bringing them to the factory floor.

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