Three-dimensional (3D) printing is a manufacturing process that can create any solid, 3D item from a digital model. Because the process is additive, it is unique and unlike most others. In an additive process, the object is built as the machine applies successive layers of material on top of each other in different shapes in order to replicate the virtual prototype. The material then cools and becomes hard, creating a sturdy, three-dimensional object.
This new manufacturing style is becoming increasingly popular due to its range of applications. Objects can be made with moveable parts, so everything from the structural basics of a pen, to parts for a prosthetic, to fully functioning wrenches can be built with a 3D printer.
Understandably, this versatility is probably why professionals from many different industries have been able to find a use for this production method. Almost every industry can benefit from the process. For example, an office supply company may be using it to create custom pens that are thicker for a consumer who may have large hands. But from a different point of view, a dentist is printing a dental implant for his next appointment. In fact, the medical profession has been especially quick to embrace the new printing process, and many doctors have built customized prosthetics for their patients with 3D printing.
But while the variety of uses for 3D printing is impressive, it is not the only reason people are embracing the new manufacturing process. It is also environmentally-friendly in many ways. Think about the materials involved: it’s negligible compared to other processes. The amount of materials is minimal because everything is built using only the printing material; therefore, 3D printing becomes a less wasteful alternative to other manufacturing processes.
3D printing gives us much more opportunities to improve the energy efficiency of manufacturing, and it allows everything to be made with electricity, rather than through having to burn fossil fuels directly. Engineers will also find it much easier to improve energy usage by constantly refining the central mechanics of the printer, rather than waiting for decades for new manufacturing techniques to filter through the industry.
3D printing is also more cost effective. With its current applications in mind, 3D printing could possibly make solar energy more affordable. Currently, installation is the dominate cost for solar power, and 3D printing could drop production costs by significant amounts. This is because the ability to control the material will change current models by creating more of an on-demand model that doesn’t require expensive manufacturing, said a writer for The Guardian. It will bring the manufacturing process directly to the consumer, thereby cutting down the cost of distribution and limiting the reliance on distant warehouses. This, of course, doesn’t just mean the financial cost. There is the environmental cost of all the gasoline and fuel used during distribution.
Finally, the fact that products made with 3D printers are built from single raw material is more than just less wasteful. We also can’t forget how much easier this makes recycling. A lot of energy is put into disassembling and breaking down the multiple different kinds of materials. Since the objects made with 3D printers are built from a single material, they don’t require as much energy to break down.