Since the Industrial Revolution, we have been conditioned to believe that mass producing products is the cheapest, most efficient way of manufacturing goods. This concept has been applied to everything from sweaters to meat, and has undoubtedly become the standard in the United States.

Some of the most popular products manufactured by this system are made of plastic. In 1984, a new way to produce many plastic products was introduced using a 3D printer. Using this method, a three-dimensional solid object can be made from a digital model by depositing successive layers of filament (most commonly plastic). These layers are then automatically fused or joined post-production to create the final shape of the object.

Although the popularity of 3D printing is still gaining momentum, many groups are interested in it due to its versatility and monetary value. Already, the growth of the personal 3D printer market segment has had an average gain of 364 percent each year from 2008 through 2011.

One such group interested in the forthcoming value of 3D printing is Joshua Pearce and his team at the Michigan Technological University. In a recent study, Pearce and his colleagues set out to investigate the energy and cost efficiency of producing certain plastic items using a 3D printer. In their research, Pearce and his group analyzed the life cycle impact of three products: an orange juicer, a children’s building block and a waterspout. They then analyzed the energy usage, going from raw material extraction to one of two endpoints: shipment to the US for an item manufactured overseas or printing at home on a 3D printer.

Common sense would lead us to believe that mass-producing plastic gadgets would take less energy per unit than making them one at a time on a 3D printer at home. However, through their experiments, Pearce and his colleagues have proven that 3D printing objects is not only cheaper, but also more energy efficient than mass producing them to be shipped to warehouses.

Why It’s Cheaper

Most 3D printers for home use, like the RepRap used in Pearce’s study, are about the size of a boom box and cost between $350 and $2,000 USD. Although the current initial cost of a 3D printer is quite high, its price is predicted to drop as it continues to gain popularity. According to Pearce’s study, people could save thousands of dollars each year by using their 3D printers because they can use less raw materials, avoid retail mark-ups and eliminate shipping costs.

  • Using 3D printers for personal use is more cost efficient than mass producing the same products because less raw materials can be used. Pearce points out that the children’s block he constructed in his experiment is traditionally made out of solid wood or plastic. However, the 3D printed blocks can be made partially or even completely hollow, requiring much less material.
  • 3D printer owners can save by avoiding retail mark-ups. For example, an iPhone 5 case boasts a $20 retail tag in stores, but can be made for 27 cents using a 3D printer.
  • The consumer also eliminates shipping costs and can enjoy their product almost immediately after printing it. The convenience of 3D printing at home will surely be valuable to those who believe that time is money.

3D printer owners can even find free designs to make thousands of products (including iPhone cases) from sources like Thingiverse.

I perused the website, and was surprised to find designs for everything from cookie cutters to test tube racks. People are even using 3D printers to create objects like the feature image above, which is the largest 3D printed art installation in the world!

Why It’s Environmentally Sustainable

When we are able to construct many of our favorite plastic items at home, we are able to control its life cycle more than its store bought counterpart. This is because we can choose what kind of materials go into our product – we can say “no” to petroleum-based plastics and choose recyclable materials. We also eliminate the need for it to be shipped from the factory and stored in a warehouse until we pluck it off the shelves. The combined result is an environmentally sustainable product that can be made from renewable resources, is recyclable and uses significantly less energy and carbon dioxide to manufacture, store and transport than its factory-made equivalent.

  • One of the common types of plastic filament used  in 3D printing is polylactic acid, commonly known as PLA. PLA is a greener alternative to petroleum-based plastics because it’s made from renewable resources such as corn starch or sugar cane.
  • Currently, polylactic acid’s structure can be purified into monomers to make new PLA without losing any of its original properties. In other words, PLA can be reconstructed waste-free. The recycling number of polylactic acid is also recognized internationally.
  • Pearce’s group found that items made on 3D printers consumed 41 to 64 percent less energy than making them in a factory abroad and shipping them to the US. Pearce and his colleagues drove down energy usage even further by running a separate analysis on products made using solar-powered 3D printers.

These findings are substantial because the energy and fossil fuels used to fabricate the raw materials, construct and ship a mass-produced item to a warehouse all emit carbon dioxide and other waste materials. As most of us are aware, chemical and energy pollution can have devastating effects on the environment, our food supply, our bodies and the living creatures with which we share this Earth.

In an article in the Michigan Technological University, Pearce best summarized the weight of his study’s conclusion: “The bottom line is, we can get substantial reductions in energy and carbon dioxide emissions from making things at home,” he stated. “And the home manufacturer would be motivated to do the right thing and use less energy, because it costs so much less to make things on a 3D printer than to buy them off the shelf or on the Internet.”

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