The demand for 3D printers is skyrocketing and Gartner predicts that nearly half a million 3D printers will be sold worldwide this year. Driven by a digital blueprint, 3D printers build layer upon layer of fused plastic, metal, or other materials into a functional object. John Hornick, author of 3D Printing Will Rock the World, explains: "3D printers are the most powerful machines ever invented because they can make finished products, with all their parts, fully assembled."  

There are many reasons companies are enamored of 3D printers, which are now being used to build everything from futuristic clothing to  prosthetics. But, according to Hornick, another upside of the 3D printing craze that most people do not realize is that 3D printing is greener than traditional manufacturing in at least three ways: (1). It uses less material to make a part; (2). It uses less energy in production; and (3). It can have a much shorter supply chain than parts made in traditional ways.

For complex items that were made from many different pieces before the advent of 3D printing, the environmental savings of 3D printing can be significant. Unlike traditional machines, which cut or grind away as much as 90% of the feedstock, 3D printers generate far less waste because products are made from just a little more than the amount of material that ends up in the finished part. 3D printers make parts layer by layer, using only as much material as needed to make each layer.

In addition to using less material to manufacture parts, 3D printers can use less energy too. "Some people have argued that 3D printers use more energy to build parts than traditional machines," Hornick notes. "For example, they say that the lasers of metal 3D printers use far more energy than traditional milling and drilling machines. They may be right if you look only at the energy used by the 3D printer itself, but the all-in energy footprint of 3D printing should be significantly smaller than that of traditional machines. Often, making a part with traditional methods requires multiple machines, all of which must be manufactured, and all of which have their own energy footprint. These machines also gobble energy while they make parts. By comparison, a product can be 3D printed using far fewer inputs, resulting in less energy usage. The all-in costs also include the price of the materials, including the significant quantity of raw materials wasted using traditional manufacturing methods."

Even where 3D printing a part uses more energy than traditional methods, its energy footprint can be lower over the life of the part. "For example, the fuel nozzles that General Electric 3D prints for its LEAP aircraft engine are 25% lighter than their traditionally-made predecessors," says Hornick. "The lighter parts will save energy, in the form of jet fuel, over the entire life of the parts." In order to calculate the real environmental savings, one must look at the full lifecycle of the product, including the machines needed to make it as well as its end use.

Another significant environmental savings is the ability to locate 3D printing where production is needed. "Traditional manufacturing is often done where labor is cheap, and then requires long distance shipping and warehousing. Labor, shipping, and warehousing all have their own energy footprints. Because far fewer machines and less labor are required to print 3D parts and products, they need not be made in far-off lands, and the energy footprints are reduced when 3D parts are printed near the point of need," he notes. Traditional manufacturing is often plagued by humanitarian violations. By reducing outsourced manufacturing, American companies can decrease the environmental footprint of their products, as well as ensure that their wares are manufactured ethically.