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Insights 16 Mar 2016

3D Printing – A Sustainable Solution Near You?

By Rochelle March
Image © Rochelle March

Image © Rochelle March

In the Michelin starred restaurant, Enoteca, nestled amongst palm trees with a view of the Mediterranean, an acclaimed chef, Paco Perez, places a plate inside a strange-looking machine.

He pushes a few buttons and removes it, now adorned with an intricate, coral-like design. He adds ingredients onto the edible design—caviar, sea-urchins, hollandaise, an egg and carrot “foam”—and pronounces the meal “Sea Coral.” The centerpiece of the dish is made from a seafood puree shaped into a complex design that would be near impossible to create by hand; instead, it has been assembled on to the plate by a 3D printer.

3D printing is “at a tipping point, about to go mainstream in a big way,” forecasted Harvard Business Review last year. Despite a small slump in growth during 2015, the industry is now expanding into more and more channels. Mattel just released a 3D printer for kids named the ThingMaker. Scientists at Princeton University have 3D printed a bionic ear that can hear radio frequencies beyond the range of normal human capability. 3D printed casts are known to heal bones 40-80% faster than traditional ones. You can take a picture of you foot and send it to SOLS, a start-up specializing in custom orthotics, to get stylish orthopedic insoles 3D printed and sent to your door.

Not only is 3D printing taking off and shaping the economy, but it may also be a much more sustainable technology – particularly when it comes to manufacturing. While there are several environmental benefits to 3D printing, one of the most prominent is the ability to manufacture products locally and with significantly shorter supply chains. 3D printed objects rely on a design that can be downloaded to a 3D printer anywhere – even your own home – and printed domestically. Printing this way could cut down on the energy and materials regularly used in transportation and packaging. 3D Hubs CEO Bram de Zwart believes “3D printing accelerates a future of local and on-demand manufacturing,” saving travel time and the need for excess inventory.

Not only is 3D printing taking off and shaping the economy, but it may also be a much more sustainable technology – particularly when it comes to manufacturing.

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Some first movers are already leveraging this aspect of 3D printing. 3D Hubs, for example, is growing the largest localized 3D printing network in the world to catalyze more local production. With more than 28,000 printers scattered across the globe (447 in New York, 354 in Los Angeles and 322 in London, for example), designers and newbies alike can print prototypes, replacement parts or customized products close to home.

The accessibility and speed of 3D printing is particularly useful to inventors, start-ups and designers. Previously, designs were frequently sent to Chinese-based factories for prototyping due to low costs and were then made through a subtractive process via CNC milling (a machining process that uses rotary cutters to remove material to create precise sizes and shapes). This would take weeks to complete and the final products would need to be shipped to the designer, often across the globe. Alternatively, the average manufacturing time for a 3D Hub printer is 2 days. The process is done additively, so only the material needed is used, and one might be able to pick up the product on his or her way to work.

Increasing speed and accessibility while decreasing the cost of prototyping has myriad benefits, particularly to the quickly growing start-up and entrepreneurial sector. Smaller market players can now rely on rapidly printed prototypes to prove their concepts to investors and refine designs based on real user experience, all without the immense resources of a corporate R&D facility.

Sam Birchenough, founder of BRCHN Design House, specializes in helping start-ups, particularly socially- and sustainably-minded ones, bring their concepts to market. “Prototyping via additive manufacturing in-house has substantially improved our product development process as a whole,” he says. Thanks to new CAD software by Autodesk that incorporates both parametric and surface modeling factors, essential for organic design and engineering, plus a steady stream of creative clients, Birchenough says his work flow efficiency has improved 250%.. Such nimbleness is key when trying to compete with the big guys.

So when will the big guys catch on? While perhaps not operating on the cutting edge beta technology that Birchenough employs, large companies are privy to the economic and environmental benefits of 3D printing. HP is expanding into offering commercial 3D printers and services, Apple recently invented a 3D printing method for liquid metal in order to rapidly prototype new products andGE has over 300 3D printing machines in use and plans to print over 100,000 parts by 2020. Birchenough believes mid- to large-scale manufacturing will all be done with 3D printing in 10 years.

Increasing speed and accessibility while decreasing the cost of prototyping has myriad benefits, particularly to the quickly growing start-up and entrepreneurial sector.

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The aspects of localized manufacturing and more efficient use of materials is already an environmental plus, but in order for 3D printing to deliver on its full eco-potential it’s imperative to design with sustainability in mind. Fortunately, companies – large and small – are embracing more circular economy principles. For example, 3D Hubs has a partnership with Fairphone, an ethical smartphone manufacturer, to bring 3D printed accessories to its users. Customers are able to commercialize their designs and have them 3D printed using recyclable materials (think PLA as well as a wood composite) in under 48 hours. BRCHNDesign House just helped prototype a tablet for hearing-impaired or ESLspeakers to use for closed captioning in movie theaters and is working on asustainable commuter car that runs on electricity. 3D Systems, a publicly traded 3D printing company, strives to use recyclable and efficient materials “wherever possible” that are designed to create less waste. Like any technology, 3D printing is a tool to further our visions and desires that must be focused on improved social and environmental outcomes.

Recently, new machines have emerged that combine both additive and subtractive manufacturing – making it possible to 3D print an even greater variety of shapes and sizes. While the tide gets stronger for more localized manufacturing enabled by 3D printing, so too does the potential benefit for increased economic activity via efficiency gains, entrepreneurial creativity and greater sustainability opportunities for supply chains and resource management.

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