Rapid Prototyping & Our Environment


We have all heard of 3D printing at one point or another and all of its promise, as this technology after all has been around for several years now. This technology has actually been around for decades, but has only recently started making major impacts on several different sectors of our lives. This, in turn, has caused several people to wonder how it affects our the environment. Is 3D printing & rapid prototyping really better than the traditional manufacturing methods? And isn’t it more expensive and time consuming? As with any new technology, there are many questions and this technology is going through many changes as well as advances, but we definitely need to understand its effect on our precious and limited environment.


If you look at the 3D printer as a whole and compare it to industrial machines, you will realise that rapid prototyping doesn’t necessarily create lesser waste neither can the waste necessarily be recycled. What’s more important, however, is its use of electricity. In many cases, 3D printers are a lot more eco-friendly than traditional manufacturing machines, but in some cases they’re not.


It is a misconception that rapid prototyping is always better than the conventional methods of production. However, it still won’t be wrong to say that they are indeed, better in many ways, but not all the time. What matters is how you make use of the tool itself. The thing about 3D printers is that these have the opportunity for improvement, which is what makes them better than the ordinary manufacturing methods, and which also promotes greener manufacturing methods.


3D printers were pit against many other types of manufacturing methods, to test whether or not they really are beneficial and to see if they are better alternatives to the traditional methods or not. Among the many different types of 3D printers, 2 were tested: the FDM machine and inkjet 3D printer. Since these rapid prototyping machines cannot print materials as such as metals, their plastic printing abilities were looked at. A life-cycle assessment was made to compare these 2 printers as well as the mill. Variable conditions such as the use of materials and the machines’ manufacturing as well as its use of energy, transportation, waste production, and the machines’ end-of-life disposal was looked at.


22 different scenarios were looked at to determine how the machines were made use of. Additionally, the machines’ ecological impact was also calculated and looked into. It was rather surprising to discover that not many people have actually conducted such a research before. The focus has always been on the machines’ use of energy, which, of course, isn’t good enough. The test needs to contain a balance of both energy use as well as material use, as otherwise, it will not be possible to determine what the impact of these machines on the environment is.


After the test was conducted, the results revealed that rapid prototyping myths of zero-waste are both true and false. The FDM machine that was used for the test showed that it can bring about negligible waste, but this is only if the model that one uses doesn’t need any supporting material while printing to shore the printer up. Hobbyist printers qualify, since support materials can’t be printed. At the same time, the inkjet rapid prototyping system wastes as much as 40% of the ink that it uses. This percentage doesn’t include the supporting materials, which may or may not be heavier than the final printed design. On top of that, the waste produced by this printer cannot even be recycled.


However, the most surprising question that was posed in the face of these results was whether or not this waste matters at all. This is because traditional manufacturing methods mainly produce waste that being its biggest problem, but rapid prototyping only uses energy. Although the waste of material does matter, it’s not the biggest issue. That said, it would help if the printed material’s amount can be decreased, and one way to do that is by printing hollow parts. However, even such a method only succeeds in causing reduction of energy use and not material use.


Everything has its pros and cons, as can be seen from this experiment. 3D printing is not the all-around perfect solution, at least, it isn’t yet, but it just might be someday in the future. That said, there are ways in which waste can be reduced while 3D printing. You could print hollow parts instead of solid parts, which will not only print faster, but it will also be less toxic.


Another thing you can do is orient the parts properly for faster printing. This means that it might be better to print 3D models flat and then assembling them after it has been printed. This will reduce both waste and energy use. Finally, filling the printer bed with multiple parts is yet another solution to reduce waste. Although this had no effect on FDM printers, other printers might benefit from it. Choosing the right kind of materials is also important when it comes to reducing waste while 3D printing. Choosing better quality materials will also reduce energy use and toxicity.


3D printing has only just begun its journey in the many different sectors around the world. It goes without saying that these printers will continue to undergo changes and improvements until they can perfectly meet with all the necessary conditions, and until they can become perfect and perhaps even completely eco-friendly.



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