3-D printing: Making your own saves energy, scientist says

Oct 03, 2013 by Marcia Goodrich
One way 3-D printing saves energy over manufacturing is by using less raw material. This series of partially printed Swiss children's blocks illustrates how a 3-D printer can partially fill the interior of an item with plastic while maintaining its structural strength. Credit: Samuel Bernier/Thingiverse.com

3D printing isn't just cheaper, it's also greener, says Michigan Technological University's Joshua Pearce.

Even Pearce, an aficionado of the make-it-yourself-and-save technology, was surprised at his study's results. It showed that making stuff on a 3D printer uses less energy—and therefore releases less carbon dioxide—than producing it en masse in a factory and shipping it to a warehouse.

Most 3D printers for home use, like the RepRap used in this study, are about the size of microwave ovens. They work by melting filament, usually plastic, and depositing it layer by layer in a specific pattern. Free designs for thousands of are available from outlets like Thingiverse.com.

Common sense would suggest that mass-producing plastic widgets would take less energy per unit than making them one at a time on a 3D printer. Or, as Pearce says, "It's more efficient to melt things in a cauldron than in a test tube." However, his group found it's actually greener to make widgets at home.

They conducted impact analyses on three products: an orange juicer, a children's building block and a waterspout. The cradle-to-gate analysis of energy use went from raw material extraction to one of two endpoints: entry into the US for an item manufactured overseas or printing it a home on a 3D printer.

Pearce's group found that making the items on a basic 3D printer took from 41 percent to 64 percent less energy than making them in a factory and shipping them to the US.

Materials science graduate John Laureto prints a gear on a Rep Rap 3-D printer in Joshua Pearce's lab at Michigan Tech. A study by Pearce demonstrates that printing such items is greener because it uses less energy. Credit: Sarah Bird/Michigan Technological University

Some of the savings come from using less raw material. "Children's blocks are normally made of solid wood or plastic," said Pearce, an associate professor of materials science and engineering/electrical and computer engineering. 3D printed blocks can be made partially or even completely hollow, requiring much less plastic.

Pearce's team ran their analysis with two common types of plastic filament used in 3D printing: acrylonitrile butadiene styrene and polylactic acid (PLA). PLA is made from renewable resources, such as cornstarch, making it a greener alternative to petroleum-based plastics. The team also did a separate analysis on products made using solar-powered 3D printers, which drove down the environmental impact even further.

"The bottom line is, we can get substantial reductions in energy and CO2 emissions from making things at home," Pearce said. "And the home manufacturer would be motivated to do the right thing and use less , because it costs so much less to make things on a 3D printer than to buy them off the shelf or on the Internet."

A paper on their work, "Environmental Life Cycle Analysis of Distributed 3D Printing and Conventional Manufacturing of Polymer Products," is in press in the journal ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering. The coauthors are Megan Kreiger, a master's graduate in materials science and engineering, and Pearce. It may be viewed at http://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/sc400093k.

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VENDItardE
1 / 5 (13) Oct 03, 2013
ri-i-i-i-i-i-i-ghttttt
Eikka
2.3 / 5 (9) Oct 03, 2013
3D printed blocks can be made partially or even completely hollow, requiring much less plastic.


So can mass-manufactured parts. The end result is only that they feel "cheap" to the end user, and they break more easily - especially when you give them to children who chew on and bash them.

You can also use a bunch of fillers in the plastic, including plain old dirt if you want to spend less on the materials.

packrat
1 / 5 (8) Oct 03, 2013
@Eikka,
Yea, toys used to be made tough enough they could be passed down to the next generation... Not much of that is possible these days when companies make stuff as thin and cheap as possible. Or the good stuff now cost 5X or more than what than it used to in comparison with the cheap stuff....priced a real Tonka toy truck lately? You might be surprised...
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (3) Oct 03, 2013
Oh yum waffles. Print some strawberries and butter please. Pop tarts would be easy to print.

I just had to buy a nut splitter. I doubt if you could print something like that any time soon, let alone the new nuts I will need.
packrat
1.4 / 5 (9) Oct 03, 2013
@VENDItardE,

Priced that plastic stuff for the 3d printers yet? It is over priced like ink jet cartridges! I agree with you.
Humpty
1 / 5 (10) Oct 03, 2013
Just going by the article, they appear to have failed to include the average road miles to covert the oils etc., into the plastics, to then ship them to the manufacturers and distributors, and then for the individual to buy and transport the plastic to the place of low volume production.

Anyway - why are all these head cases rating these things in terms of CO2 production?

How about Kwh/ Kg of plastic product produced.

And what about the time component?

The CO2? Yes but they are transporting them by truck - say if it were average soup bowls, there might be 100,000 of them in a truck....

Imagine transporting them 4 at a time to all your friends places.

CO2?

Hmmmmmm not as easy at it seems.
antialias_physorg
1 / 5 (2) Oct 04, 2013
Anyway - why are all these head cases rating these things in terms of CO2 production?

How about Kwh/ Kg of plastic product produced.

Because your measure doesn't mean anything? If the kWh is produced via solar or coal the impact on the environment is completely different. If you're going to use a measure then it should be one that actually tells you something about what you're trying to measure. Which they did in the article.

Just going by the article, they appear to have failed to include the average road miles to covert the oils etc., into the plastics, to then ship them to the manufacturers and distributors

Then you didn't read the article. Try again. It says righ there that they included it.

Imagine transporting them 4 at a time to all your friends places.

That has got to be the dumbest argument of the year. Try again.

Hmmmmmm not as easy at it seems.

For you? It seems to be too hard.
Eikka
1.7 / 5 (6) Oct 04, 2013
Because your measure doesn't mean anything? If the kWh is produced via solar or coal the impact on the environment is completely different. If you're going to use a measure then it should be one that actually tells you something about what you're trying to measure. Which they did in the article.


Well, you see where your problem is: the CO2 measure makes certain assumptions about the energy used to make and transport the materials, which actually makes it less useful as a comparative measure because the metric used to come up with the figure only applies if the assumptions apply.

It's the same problem that you point out in reverse. The numbers they provide are completely arbitrary because they depend on the assumptions they make about the source of the energy, and therefore they're meaningless in the real world.
antialias_physorg
1 / 5 (2) Oct 04, 2013
the CO2 measure makes certain assumptions about the energy used to make and transport the materials

Since we are nowhere near a solution (or even anyone thinking about a solution) to CO2 free transport on the high seas the assumptions they make should be valid for the foreseeable future.
If there were an alternative (even just in the works...or just in some design lab) you'd have a point. But not when we check in with reality (i.e. the 'real world' you talk about).

And they are making their calculations based on what is possible/real NOW.

Even if we were to include some as-yet-unthought-of wonder matter-transmitter: The savings would go for the 3D printer material as well.
QuixoteJ
1 / 5 (5) Oct 04, 2013
They are definitely missing something here... perhaps many things, and that's why I can't put my finger on it yet. It's all very cool and worth the study, and 3D printing is awesome, but I feel like their conclusions are naive in some way.

What really happens after everyone starts printing their own stuff? All of a sudden you need the CO2 producing type of infrastructure and transport for all those printers and plastic that you were trying to avoid in the first place. I feel like there is no real free lunch from this concept if you were to employ it full scale, but maybe I'm wrong. What would really happen if an entire country's population produced 50% of their gadgets in their own home in this way?
Eikka
1 / 5 (6) Oct 04, 2013
Since we are nowhere near a solution (or even anyone thinking about a solution) to CO2 free transport on the high seas the assumptions they make should be valid for the foreseeable future.


But since transportation isn't the sole cost of the item, the numbers are still "cooked" and cannot be used reliably to compare different methods of manufacturing. The items could also be mass-manufactured in or near the country instead of being overseas imports, which again would change the necessary assumptions used to come up with the numbers. Logistics such as larger shipment sizes would also decrease CO2 per item.

The only objective remark that can be generalized about the product is indeed the total amount of energy needed to get it from raw materials to the customer, and the amount of CO2 produced can then be estimated by making assumptions about where and how it is manufactured.

Reporting just the CO2 estimate makes the figures incomparable because the assumptions are hidden.
NikFromNYC
1.3 / 5 (10) Oct 04, 2013
Massive omitted variable bias about tawdry plastic novelty crap from hipster toy versions of expired 1990's patents. The Future doesn't arrive just because slimy Singularity gurus suddenly cheerlead glorified hot melt glue guns so their Brooklyn buddies can sell out for hundreds of millions. How many consumers own CNC routers or leather working tools or even a sewing machine? I have those, but can I 3D print composites at high resolution, quickly, this decade? The answer is a boring no, not an exciting yes.

WHERE ARE THE 3D PRINTED PRODUCTS ALREADY?!

Hucksterism now nearly dominates my daily digest of "science" news.

Why do 3D print operators wear ski hats indoors anyway?

The end of economies of scale is hereby denounced?!
NikFromNYC
1 / 5 (9) Oct 04, 2013
"This research was supported by Sustainable Futures Institute."

That's a think tank with a GM crop focus in New Zealand..

"The main part of campus is relatively small, and can be traversed in about 10 minutes. Many of the buildings are tall, reducing the physical size of the campus and giving the impression of being a park of high-rise office buildings. In addition, the offices of the Michigan Tech Fund are located in the Citizens Bank Building in Hancock."
NikFromNYC
1 / 5 (9) Oct 04, 2013
The mining college Michigan Tech that personally calls all female recruits to try to up their lack of chicks evidently doesn't also call "chink" recruits since their golf coarse surrounded campus has a glaring lack of Asians, at an astonishingly racist 1%.

AT AN ENGINEERING COLLEGE?

Columbia campus up the street with its massive science presence is chock fulla cosmopolitan Asian hotties, woo woo. They're a lot cuter than the uncivilized studyholics that dominated the UofMN campus but never flirted as they upped the grading curve.

Get your white degree at Michigan Tech today!

Typo: denounced > announced
NikFromNYC
1 / 5 (9) Oct 04, 2013
Reviews are in:

"Mechanical Engineering

I can't believe this school is getting good ratings. Maybe because all the students here are hicks.
If you are international, you will go down. I know this in particular, the school discriminates against asians, and most notably arabic people. I have heard stories of saudi students who failed classes because of feminist teachers, who portrayed the arabic world as violent towards woman. I know of atleast 20 saudi guys who were forced to leave after being discriminated upon.
social life is zero, and student are not the best looking.I suggest you look somewhere else, a very weird place indeed."

http://www.studen...negative

-=NikFromNYC=-, Ph.D. in synthetic carbon chemistry, and former Harvard Whitesides group postdoc.
antialias_physorg
1 / 5 (1) Oct 05, 2013
The items could also be mass-manufactured in or near the country instead of being overseas imports,

That's completely inconsequential.

To make a product you have to
a) Make the raw materials (which is the same for both processes)
b1) transport raw materials to homes and print
or
b2) transport raw materials to factory, manufacture, transport bulk of manufactured goods to distribution site (shop), transport individual products from shop to homes.

Even if you were to put the factory up right next to your home the 3D printer wins. It is not realistic to put up factories of all possible products you can print right next to your home, MANY of them will be overseas for cost reasons (!).

Then there's the ecological cost of getting factory workers to/from their workplace.
Then there's the cost of building the factory in the first place (at least the additional cost of the building)
...

Distributed/home systems always win. Be it in manufacturing or energy production or, ...
nevermark
not rated yet Oct 05, 2013
They are definitely missing something here... perhaps many things, and that's why I can't put my finger on it yet. It's all very cool and worth the study, and 3D printing is awesome, but I feel like their conclusions are naive in some way.


Well one naive aspect is that a crucial resource is unaccounted for: time. One valuable aspect of mass production is you can buy things in their final form. You don't need to set up, maintain, make material/design decisions (even if its just investigating and choosing a design) and operating a 3D printer. You don't need to fix your 3D printer, or clean it after a botched job.

For the moment (this will change), the total time of purchasing mass produced products is far cheaper than the total time (technical learning, etc.) involved in managing a 3D printer. Of course, if you enjoy tinkering with a 3D printer then the time you spend on it becomes a benefit (mental reward) instead of a cost. But that is not true for most people, yet.
Eikka
1.6 / 5 (7) Oct 05, 2013
Even if you were to put the factory up right next to your home the 3D printer wins.


That may be, although I won't take your word for it.

But that's also not what we were talking about, which was the futility of trying to compare goods by generalizing their CO2 output, when said output varies greatly depending on how and where you assume they are made and transported.

Then there's the ecological cost of getting factory workers to/from their workplace.
Then there's the cost of building the factory in the first place (at least the additional cost of the building)


Somehow I don't think home printing will lessen the need for people to go to work outside of their homes, and there is an embedded cost of manufacturing millions of 3D printers which are technically redundant and get less use per unit than the factory that is running on full three shifts non-stop to maximize use of the machinery.
Eikka
1.7 / 5 (6) Oct 05, 2013
Distributed/home systems always win. Be it in manufacturing or energy production or, ...


That is debateable. Systems have an optimal size of fragmentation where the logistics and control costs are balanced with redundancy benefits from de-centralizing them.

Any time you split something into smaller pieces, you increase its technical overhead. For example, making a combustion engine smaller increases its surface area in relation to its volume, which leads to greater heat losses and lower efficiency. That's why a great big ship diesel achieves 55% efficiency while a truck diesel hardly pushes 40%, and that quarter more energy is what makes a 100 MW diesel generator preferrable to a hundred 1 MW diesel generators.

The other thing is the amount of maintenance you have to do to one engine versus a hundred engines, and the materials needed to build all the redundant parts, where one large one would use less.
Eikka
1 / 5 (6) Oct 05, 2013
For many people even the much wider field of application of 2D printer is not sufficient motivation for independent ownership of such a printer - they will simply visit the nearest copy-center with CDR disk or Flash drive.


I bought one for 50 euros, and have now spent another 50 euros in inks and paper just to figure out how to make the colors appear the same on the paper as on the screen. Luckily I didn't have to buy a monitor calibrator which would have cost another 100 euros minimum. With that sort of money, I could have printed at least a thousand photos in a shop already.

If you're just looking to print regular 10x15 or 10x13 album snaps on a home printer, you're going to pay at least double than just taking your pictures to a photo print shop. There at least you get proper photochemical prints that don't smudge under your fingers.
Moebius
1.8 / 5 (5) Oct 07, 2013
What happens when a 3D printer can print a 3D printer?
QuixoteJ
1 / 5 (4) Oct 08, 2013
What happens when a 3D printer can print a 3D printer?
Now THAT is interesting!
antialias_physorg
1 / 5 (1) Oct 08, 2013
What happens when a 3D printer can print a 3D printer?

Current 3D printers can print almost all the parts of another printers (except the integrated circuits and motors. There are, however, already conductive inks than can be used to print leads.
(And conceivably not every printer in a batch would need their own ICs. A household PC could control hundreds of printers at a time without running up a temperature)

But nothing special will happen if a printer can print another printer in one go - since the limiting factor are the input materials.
Eikka
2.3 / 5 (3) Oct 09, 2013
except the integrated circuits and motors


And the ACME leadscrews, and the nuts and bolts, and the bearings and bushings, the extruders and gears, which is just about everything except the plastic brackets that hold the parts together.

None of the functional parts of a 3D printer can be printed on an FDM printer. A sintering machine could produce some of the gears and bolts out of metal, but not the rods and the leadscrews because of poor surface finish.

And conceivably not every printer in a batch would need their own ICs.


Each stepper motor needs its own controller, and that's most of the electronics that go into the printers. There's a small microcontroller that acts as a bridge between the PC and the stepper motor driver board, and everything else is software.

antialias_physorg
not rated yet Oct 10, 2013
bearings and bushings, the extruders and gears, which is just about everything except the plastic brackets that hold the parts together.

Workeable bearings, gears and screws can already be printed using plastics (just check out youtube. You'll find hundreds of movies to that effect).

With appropriate design you wouldn't need a single screw in any case.

Gears and bearings are certainly not (yet) as perfect as those manufactured by other means but serviceable enough. You can even produce some types of gears which are impossible to produce otherwise.

Each stepper motor needs its own controller

A stepper motor needs nothing except a lead to it that carries the impulses. Where the IC is situated is immaterial. You can soldier the lead directly to a port on a PC and run the stepper motor that way if you feel like it.
A single PC could address any number of such motors given an appropriate inteface card.