3D Printing for a better world


Introduction to 3D printing

3D printing, also known as Additive Manufacturing, is the process of transforming a digital model into a physical object by adding one layer at a time. This form of manufacturing requires no special tools, just a proper printer loaded with material filaments.

The process always begins with a blueprint in the form of a digital 3D model of what the future object will look like, saved in an STL file format. Computer software then breaks down the STL and creates precise instructions for the printer to make the elements, piece by piece. There are many different materials available to print, with plastics and polymers, metals, sand and food-stuffs being the most common. Depending on the materials, size and other factors, the process varies from printer to printer.

According to international standards, there are seven different groups of 3D printing categories:

  • Material Extrusion (FDM): Material is selectively dispensed through a nozzle or orifice
  • Vat Polymerization (SLA & DLP): Liquid photopolymer in a vat is selectively cured by UV light
  • Powder Bed Fusion (SLS, DMLS & SLM): A high-energy source selectively fuses powder particles
  • Material Jetting (MJ): Droplets of material are selectively deposited and cured
  • Binder Jetting (BJ): Liquid bonding agent selectively binds regions of a powder bed
  • Direct Energy Deposition (LENS, LBMD): A high-energy source fuses material as it is deposited
  • Sheet Lamination (LOM, UAM): Sheets of material are bonded and formed layer-by-layer

If this is starting to sound like a space-age fantasy, it is notable that the first person credited with describing the functions of a 3D printer was the famed science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke in 1964. Fast-forward fifty years later and now more than 1 million desktop 3D printers have been sold worldwide and the industry now exceeds $7.3 billion.

3D printing is great for making custom parts and prototypes. For manufacturing individual pieces and small batches. The cost is far lower and the turnaround time is much swifter than when compared with conventional manufacturing.

Big developments: Volkswagen utilizes 3D printing

Legendary car manufacturer Volkswagen has announced plans to become the first automaker to adopt the latest 3D printing technology “HP Metal Jet” which simplifies and speeds up metallic 3D printing. Volkswagen will make history by partnering with printer manufacturer, HP, and component manufacturer GKN Powder Metallurgy. The new development was announced at the 2018 International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) in Chicago.

Volkswagen’s Head of Technology Planning and Development, Dr. Martin Goede, said:

“Automotive production is facing major challenges: our customers are increasingly expecting more personalization options. At the same time, complexity is increasing with the number of new models. That’s why we are relying on state-of-the-art technologies to ensure a smooth and fast production. 3D printing plays a particularly important role in manufacturing of individual parts.”

Utilizing HP’s 3D Metal Jet technology will allow for the production of a large number of parts without having to develop and manufacture the corresponding tools. This will eventually lead to individualized design parts such as tailgate lettering, special gear knobs or keys for customers to be produced relatively effortlessly.


Is 3D printing a green process?

While conventional manufacturing is known to generate a lot of secondary waste, 3D printing is generally less wasteful. However, there has not been a full analysis of the environmental impacts of 3D printing. The Journal of Industrial Ecology at Yale University released a special issue exploring the effects of additive manufacturing.

In the journal, they express the following concerns:

  • Exposure to emissions of tiny plastic particles and safety hazards during use of additive manufacturing machinery
  • Some of the plastics, metals or other materials used cannot be recycled
  • Processing some of the additive raw materials can consume more energy than conventional manufacturing technology (including the shipping)
  • More on-demand production and endless customization could lead to dramatic increases in throw-away rejects for the landfill
  • The potential to prolong the lifespan of certain products could mean that older less-efficient equipment will be kept on

Given the concerns with additive manufacturing and waste generation, it’s also great to know the many positives when it comes to 3D printing. Think about the ways it could help with environmental sustainability, including:

  • Eliminating global shipping waste by printing your own products and parts in-house
  • Reducing product waste – precise layering means only the product itself is manufactured
  • Cutting emissions – Smoke, pollution, toxic fumes are significantly reduced—and sometimes entirely nonexistent—when major industries (automotive, healthcare) leverage 3D printing, the more we can reduce overall emissions
  • Energy efficiency – 3D printing and generative design is the key to making light-weight vehicle parts, allowing automakers to meet and exceed today’s legislative mandates for energy efficiency

Perhaps the greatest contribution that 3D printing can make is in documenting vanishing ecosystems and in improving nature itself.

Ways that 3D printing can save natural habitats

Australian researchers are studying ways in which 3D printing can save threatened coral reefs. As ocean acidification, pollution, and algae are causing coral bleaching and white band disease and rising ocean temperatures are shocking coral to death, the need to protect ocean life is imperative. This is why there is a project underway at the University of Sydney aiming to create 3D versions of coral from the Great Barrier Reef.

A not-for-profit research group called Reef Design Labs has created an artificial coral reef in the Maldives. Their patented Modular Artificial Reef Structure (MARS) enables users to build, install and adjust the structure by hand. Each of the artificial reef’s components is custom 3D printed and fitted with real coral fragments that can grow across the entire structure.


The reefs are made of hollow ceramics, molded into complex shapes, and then filled with concrete for stability. The artificial reefs mimic the natural ones so that coral can easily attach themselves, while simultaneously creating a new home for other reef species. The MARS installation becomes a resilient permanent structure, with the added benefit of being a protective sea wall. When considering that the highest point in the Maldives is only 8 feet above sea level, this natural wave-breaking barrier is a very welcome addition.

Researchers at Reef Design Labs and the University of Sydney are essential to refining our approach to climate change and undoing our affects on the environment.


Additive manufacturing for the future

It is clear that 3D printing is disrupting the standard manufacturing processes of yesterday. Now is the time for a “green industrial revolution” and 3D printing is the linchpin. As everyone from major corporations to small individual users get involved with 3D printing today, it will only lead to a more efficient and sustainable tomorrow.

Looking forward, we need to design new additive manufacturing systems with environmental efficiency in mind. We can generate less waste by producing only what we need. We will do it for the sake of the environment.

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