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3D Printing – Environmentally Friendly or Not – Is Coming to a Manufacturer Near You

Image: Divergent 3D’s Blade Supercar, made with 3D printing technology

The potential implications for 3D printing in terms of the environment are still not fully known, according to a special issue of Yale’s Journal of Industrial Ecology. But despite uncertainties, the technology is expected to continue disrupting industry.

3D printing – technically named additive manufacturing – is used primarily in industry and has been seen as a path to more sustainable manufacturing. But it may be too early to label it as such, says Reid Lifset, editor-in-chief of the publication and co-author of the lead editorial in the special issue. “We need to know much more about the material footprints, energy consumption in production, process emissions, and especially the linkages and alignments between the various stages in the production process,” he wrote.

The process of 3D printing has been said to be more environmentally friendly than conventional manufacturing because of its ability to be produced locally rather than having to be shipped long distances, and because of its potential for zero-waste manufacturing. But according to the special report, the environmental impact depends greatly on the configuration of the machinery and the materials used.


Still Heralded as the Future…

But though the full implications of the environmental impacts of 3D printing versus traditional manufacturing may not yet be clear, it is hard to argue against the fact that the technology will continue to disrupt certain industries, including automotive.

A startup called Divergent 3D, for example, is building vehicles using new digital technologies like 3D metal printing, which Forbes calls “less expensive than traditional manufacturing methods and better for the environment.” The company itself claims its 3D print automotive manufacturing platform “radically reduces materials, energy, and cost.”

Divergent 3D is partnering with France’s Groupe PSA – maker of Peugeot and Citroen vehicles – on development projects in the automotive sector. In the future, instead of mega factories building cars in single locations, networks of small urban factories using 3D technologies will build low-cost vehicles in “small and highly customizable batches,” predicts Kevin Czinger, the entrepreneur at the helm of the startup.

Using 3D printed metal joints in a car’s chassis – which connect using a high-strength adhesive rather than being welded – results in a strong but lightweight underbody, leading to reduced fuel requirements, among other savings. In fact, a study conducted last year by Divergent 3D on behalf of PSA indicated that using its technology to develop a popular SUV would reduce development time by a year, vehicle weight by 50%, and parts required by 75%, the Forbes article  said.

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