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3D printing is a Cheap, Green Way of Making Things

Oct 04, 2013 07:27 AM EDT
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Researchers have found that 3D printing is not just cheaper, but a greener way of making things.

Michigan Technological University's Joshua Pearce says that a 3D printer uses less energy and therefore doesn't damage the environment.

People might feel that producing something on a large scale is cheaper. But Pearce argues that when it comes to 3D printing, making products at home is a lot more affordable and even reduces the amount of carbon produced.

For the study, researchers conducted life cycle impact analyses on three products- a juicer, a set of children's building blocks and a waterspout. The scientists looked at total energy spent on manufacturing these products, right from extraction of raw materials to making the final product for both 3D printed materials and those made by conventional technology.

The 3D printers used in the study were common, microwave-size printers that melt filament (mostly plastic) and deposit it layer by layer to make an item. Users can search for designs online.

Researchers found that using a 3D printer to make an item consumed about 41 to 64 percent less energy than making it in a factory.

The study team also looked at common types of plastic filament used in 3D printing, such as polylactic acid (PLA), which is made of cornstarch. PLA is a better alternative than petroleum-based plastics.

"The bottom line is, we can get substantial reductions in energy and CO2 emissions from making things at home," Pearce said in a news release. "And the home manufacturer would be motivated to do the right thing and use less energy, because it costs so much less to make things on a 3D printer than to buy them off the shelf or on the Internet."

The study paper, "Environmental Life Cycle Analysis of Distributed 3D Printing and Conventional Manufacturing of Polymer Products," is published in the journal ACS Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering.

Recently, NASA had reported that it is planning to send 3D printers in space to help astronauts make tools. The strategy would lower the cost of hauling spare tools, the agency said.

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