3D Printing: a change in the means of production?
By: Taliesin L.O.
3D printing is the the common, journalist's name for a new technology that is technically known more accurately as “additivemanufacturing(AM).” That name may sound daunting, but with a moment's thought it becomes quite self explanatory. Most traditional manufacturing, known as subtractive manufacturing, is the process of taking a quantity of raw material and refining it into a final product. A clear example is sculpture, where an artist takes raw materials as a slab of stone and, removing pieces from it layer by layer, arrives at a desired product. It's subtractive because the final merchandise is created by diminishing the raw materials.
In contrast, additive manufacturing received that name for the simple reason that it is a method for fabrication by means of adding and combining layer-upon-layer of the material until enough has been accumulated that the final commodity has been completed. In short, traditional manufacturing is accomplished by means of subtracting layer after layer from the raw materials; 3D printing is accomplished by means of adding layer after layer of raw materials.
Generally additive manufacturing begins with a detailed computer rendering of the final product. This three dimensional model is then fed into a 3D printer which proceeds to combine layers of metal, plastic or another material that has been liquified, powdered or refined in sheets. From there it is just a matter of time until what started as a computer model is a physical object.
It should be noted, though, that this technology is over twenty five years old. It is by no means new, and will take quite some time before it becomes standard in any section of industry besides prototyping.
Today the most common method of AM is called fused deposition modeling, which is essentially melting the tip of a metal wire, depositing the molten metal on the product, waiting for it to dry, and adding another layer of melted wire. Layer after layer, liquid metal or plastic or other material is added. For industrial use 3D printing is still mainly used for prototyping. That means that it has been used for the last thirty years by people like car manufacturers to acquire fast, easy and cheap prototypes for new products. These are, however, still expensive on a consumer scale.
A traditional prototype, even of a simple soda can, may cost hundreds of thousands of dollars; a 3D printed one will cost considerably less, but will still cost thousands of dollars. One of the most expensive requirements for additive manufacturing is the energy usage of the 3D printers, which consume very considerable amounts. But now AM is becoming capable of utilizing more and more base materials at less and less cost. It's already being used to create consumer jewelry and the like, and could become the standard way of manufacturing simple household goods.
The big question: just how sustainable is it?
“3D printing by its very nature is sustainable, because it builds from nothing, layer-by-layer, to build an object — you have no waste,” says Cathy Lewis, vice president of global marketing for 3D Systems, which has been developing the technology for industry for many years and recently debuted its first 3D printer aimed at home consumers. There are a lot of hopes for additive manufacturing starting to bubble. Besides the reason mentioned by in the above quote, there's also the possibilities for such a multi-functioning factory. Normally it is required that countless machines are used to turn raw materials into a final product, but additive manufacturing could change that. One 3D printer can manufacture almost anything.
The possibility is that raw materials will be shipped from where they are mined or harvested and sent directly to whatever city with additive manufacture capabilities is in need of them. That is a great deal more sustainable than harvesting iron, shipping it to be refined into steel, and shipping that to different factories across the world only to have the final product be clunkilly shipped to stores.
One of the main changes that AM could make in the world is making localized industry feasible. Historically, to produce something on an industrial scale, a factory is needed, and factories are a massive investment. A massive investment that can only produce one good. That means that a town may have, for instance, a shoe factory and an iron refinery. Such a town would need to import almost everything it needs, even the materials to make those shoes. One 3D printer, however, can produce almost anything. Meaning, one town with one AM factory could, given the necessary materials, manufacture everything that it requires on an industrial scale.
Finally, there are new technologies being developed which will allow a 3D printer to function not off of plastic and metal, but off of more natural products such as corn and sugar beet. Additive Manufacturing may be done using raw carbon, a very sustainable substance. For all this utopian dreaming, there area draw backs. AM is still very inefficient on a consumer level, taking many magnitudes more energy to manufacture the same product as traditional industry.
Mechanical engineer Tim Gutowski, who heads MIT’s Environmentally Benign Manufacturing group, found in a 2009 study that laser direct metal deposition — a type of additive manufacturing where metal powder is deposited and fused together by a high-energy beam — uses hundreds of times the electricity, per kilogram of metal processed, as more traditional methods like casting or machining.
Do not, however, let that get anyone down. All that this means is that AM is still a ways away from saving the planet, but that does mean that it is somewhere and that it is coming. Given time, AM will almost assuredly become less energy wasting, and will become more and more pervasive in the industrial world.
Energy use aside, there is one other major concern for 3D printing, and that is if it is stolen by one of the greatest evils of our time: consumerism. After all, think of the useless, breakable plastic trinkets people will be able to print. It could be truly instant gratification for every whim. But maybe not. Maybe people will use it for more sustainable purposes, like making their own skateboards off of local corn synthetics instead of buying them from China. Another anti-consumerist use is repair. A simple example is the battery cover on the back of every remote control which everyone losses. Normally it is nearly impossible to replace, but could be easily printed. The list goes on. It will make repairing lost or broken electronic parts simple for anyone. That use extends all through the house and beyond for anything that needs to be repaired.
In short, given time, Additive Manufacturing (production by adding layers of material instead of removing them) could have four major uses compared with traditional manufacture:
- Less wasted material as AM is based off of adding layers of raw material instead of stripping them off and throwing them away.
- Easy repair of household goods, in that a lost knob or battery cover could be easily manufactured by AM.
- More localized, given that 3D printers could make for a relatively cheap industrial factory which might produce everything a city needs with the only imported goods being easily transported raw material.
- Sustainable plant-starch based polylactic acid (PLA) plastic can be used instead of unsustainable, petroleum consuming plastics products.