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Does 3D Printing Reduce Carbon Footprint? - RP Space

carbon footprint

Does 3D Printing Reduce Carbon Footprint?

We have been told that reducing our carbon footprint could help in combating climate change (such as global warming). But what exactly is carbon footprint?

Carbon footprint is defined as the amount of emissions created by us, expressed as carbon dioxide equivalent. These emissions can be created in many sources including manufacturing, agriculture, electricity generation and the exhaust from vehicles.

The following video by simpleshow explains really well about what is carbon footprint and the sources of carbon footprint around us.

Reducing carbon footprint is really important because too much emission of carbon dioxide or any other equivalent greenhouse gases will lead to greater increase in the temperature of the Earth (a phenomenon known as global warming).

 

Some Serious Talk About Global Warming

Put aside 3D printing for a moment and allow us to have some discussion on global warming.

People tend to not take global warming seriously because in the short term, there seems to be nothing severe. But in the long term, global warming can cause severe problems.

You may have heard of global warming causes the ice to melt and polar bears lose their habitat. But it only bothers the polar bear and not us, so most of us ignored it. This is not true as global warming will indeed create some issues for us.

First of all, ice melting indicates rise in sea level, which indicates cities with lower elevation (yes, entire city) would slowly submerge (or more frequent floods).

Secondly, global warming causes climate change (in fact, climate change is actually a better word to describe the complex impact of increase in temperature). Climate changes include increased precipitation (rain and snowfall), more destructive hurricanes and more severe drought.

These climate changes would cause lost crops, increased risk of wildfires, water shortages, damaged infrastructure and many more.

 

Irreversibility of Global Warming

Another reason global warming should be taken seriously is this, it is irreversible. In other words, you cannot reverse the increase in temperature (you cannot reduce the temperature once it has increased).

If a problem has a solution that is able to reverse its impact, it means even if the problem has occurred, we can still fix it and things would go back to its original condition.

However, global warming is irreversible and once the temperature has increased, we can no longer lower it to its original temperature.

If you are thinking of some sort of cooling mechanism would help, like how your refrigerator and air-conditioner works, then sorry to tell you, it couldn’t help.

Refrigerator and air-conditioner works by drawing heat from one region to another, therefore, making one region cooler and another region warmer. This means the total heat energy did not reduce, the heat was just transferred from one region to another.

Not only that, during the process of heat transfer, the mechanism in the refrigerator and air-conditioner that is used to transfer the heat, creates additional heat during the process.

In other words, the refrigerator and air-conditioner did not make the Earth cooler, it makes Earth warmer.

We won’t be going in-depth on global warming, just to share some important notes on the severity of global warming.

Now, let us get back to 3D printing.

 

3D Printing and Carbon Footprint

Now we know what carbon footprint is and how much it affects us, let us look into the carbon footprint of 3D printing.

In the following explanation, we will be focusing on the energy consumption since carbon footprint is usually created whenever energy is required (from sources such as carbon fuel). Although this is not true if the energy is generated from a clean energy source (renewable energy sources such as wind turbine and hydro turbine).

However, to make the explanation simpler, we will assume more energy consumption equates to higher carbon footprint.

We will focus on the carbon footprint of 3D printing in the three following aspects,

1. Material

2. Manufacturing

3. Transportation

 

1. Material

Every material carries a certain amount of embodied energy, energy used to extract the raw material, process the material and maybe even shape the material into desired geometry.

Carbon footprint from material can be reduced by reducing the amount of material use (that is why you were told to reduce, reuse and recycle).

 

Recycle Material

In terms of recycle, in depends on the materials used. There are 3D printers which uses plastic as its material while some uses metal powder. The commonly available FDM (Fused Deposition Modelling) 3D printers uses plastic filament as its material.

Plastic can only be recycled several time before its mechanical properties deteriorates. Therefore, these 3D printer did not perform that well in terms of recyclability. There are also 3D printers which work using metal powder which can be recycled many times.

However, since the majority of the 3D printers uses plastic, 3D printing did not perform that well in terms of carbon footprint for recycling material.

 

Reduce Material

In terms of reduce, 3D printers are able to produce parts of complex geometry, which indicates that it is capable of producing parts with efficient geometry.

This means 3D printed parts only use material as necessary. Therefore, the 3D printed part could use less amount of material to perform the same function as parts made by other methods such as injection molding

Therefore, 3D printed parts carry less carbon footprint as compared to other manufacturing method in terms of reduction in material.

 

Reuse Material

It may not be intuitive how 3D printing could help reuse materials. Imagine this for instance, most of the time when any appliances around us is spoiled, there is a big chance it is only a small part of that appliance is spoiled which makes the whole thing not working.

Sometimes, it may be a bit hard to find the spare part and we couldn’t think of any other ways to fix it, so we throw it away. 3D printing allows us to easily make the spoiled part and replace it, which will eventually make the appliance work again.

In other words, 3D printing makes fixing possible for anyone. This allows the same appliance (material) to be reused, which results in less throwing away, and eventually less material waste.

 

 

2. Manufacturing

Energy is used when parts go through a certain manufacturing process. The lower the energy used during the manufacturing process, the lesser the carbon footprint.

There are multiple contradicting research which shows different numbers for the energy used when manufacturing parts using 3D printing.

Some studies show that FDM 3D printing uses less energy than injection molding while some claim that 3D printing uses more energy than injection molding.

However, most research tend to compare 3D printing and injection molding based on energy consumption per unit mass of material.

This method is not that accurate since 3D printing tend to manufacturing parts of lower mass of material due to the use of infill and the ability to create parts of efficient geometry.

Despite not having a clear answer on the carbon footprint of 3D printing, there is one aspect in the production line where 3D printing could possibly reduce the carbon footprint, the assembly process.

 

Assembly

Although different from manufacturing, the parts manufactured using 3D printing allows the energy consumption during assembly to be reduced.

This is because the ability to create complex geometry using 3D printing allows multiple parts to be manufactured as one single part.

Instead of having many parts which needs to be fasten/bonded multiple times, 3D printing allows all those parts to be 3D printed as one piece and eliminate all the assembly process.

Therefore, reducing the need to perform assembly, and thus reduces the energy required for assembly.

 

 

3. Transportation

Anything that needs to be transported from one place to another requires some form of fuel to create the energy needed to ship the parts.

3D printing is able to reduce carbon footprint the most in terms of transportation because 3D printing will greatly reduce the need of transporting parts from one place to another.

This is because whenever a part is needed, only the 3D drawing needs to be sent to that person where that individual could directly 3D print the part out from his own 3D printer.

Besides that, 3D printing allows anyone to easily 3D print replacement parts for any broken appliances. This indicates that there is no need for replacement parts to be shipped to that person, or in some cases, shipping a completely new appliances.

However, this are assuming that every individual has a 3D printer at home which makes it possible to 3D print the parts at home. Although it has not yet happen, we believe it will happen in the future.

Even if the 3D printed parts were to be shipped, the parts are lighter than using other manufacturing method, which will result in using lesser fuel during transportation.

Speaking of reducing weight for transportation, there are already several companies which uses 3D printing to design a lighter and more fuel efficient cars and aeroplanes.

This greatly reduces the fuel required to ship the parts from one place to another. Therefore, reduces the carbon footprint.

 

So, Does 3D Printing Reduce Carbon Footprint?

3D printing itself leaves a smaller carbon footprint as compared to other traditional manufacturing method. However, whether or not 3D printing reduces the existing carbon footprint is a difficult question to answer because it depends on a lot of factors.

There is currently not enough research to point the exact direction on whether or not 3D printing reduces carbon footprint.

Besides that, for the effect to be really visible, 3D printing must be widely adopted. This also indicates that some manufacturing method will be changed from traditional manufacturing to 3D printing for the effect to be visible.

However, there are still a lot of room of improvement for 3D printing technology. The energy efficiency and speed of 3D printing will eventually go up, together with the possible wide adoption of 3D printing by average consumers in the future, we believe that 3D printing will be able to reduce carbon footprint in the future.

 

 

Conclusion

Carbon footprint is defined as the amount of emissions created by us, expressed as carbon dioxide equivalent. Paying close attention to carbon footprint is important because too much carbon emissions will cause global warming and climate change.

3D printing is one of the potential method to reduce carbon footprint since 3D printing leaves a smaller carbon footprint as compared to traditional manufacturing method.

The US Department of Energy estimated that 3D printing could be worth US$5 billion by 2020 and also has the potential to reduce energy costs by 50% and cut material costs by 90%.

Both the reduction of cost and material is a good sign for reduction of carbon footprint. However, there are still a lot of factors which determines if 3D printing could reduce carbon footprint.

There are quite a number of claims which suggest 3D printing could indeed reduce carbon footprint. However, we currently could not find any concrete research on this topic to validate the answer.

Therefore, we will not provide any definitive answer until there is any research which clearly validates the answer.

But as 3D printing improves and used by more people, we believe that 3D printing will be able to reduce carbon footprint.

 

Did we miss out any other points on how 3D printing could reduce carbon footprint? Let us know in the comments below.

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