Three dimensional (3D) printing has gained a lot of attention lately. While invented in the 1980‘s, 3D printing technologies have made rapid progress in the past decade and corporations in various industries are putting the concepts into use, from car parts to medical applications. However, 3D printing is still a small industry overall, the size of about $ 2.2 billions in 2012. Most of the industrial additive manufacturing installations that use 3D printing are in the U.S. Sustainability mission driven companies are incorporating 3D printing technologies to promote their goals to reduce climate change impacts.
The Cleantech Partner program of Autodesk provides the company's proprietary software tools to Cleantech stakeholders, innovators and entrepreneurs. Autodesk's 3D printing platform is used for prototyping and field testing of various products. The bigger challenge most industries face are scaling and utilization of the technologies for mass production.
3D holds the prospect of using economically sustainable materials and also zero-waste generation, especially when ‘following’ biomimicry, the discipline that emulates nature’s design and processes. For example, every leaf has solar processing capabilities - the photosynthesis (the process by which green plants use sunlight to synthesize foods from carbon dioxide and water, which usually involves the green pigment chlorophyll. The process generates oxygen as a byproduct).
Companies have been using printing technologies for years. This process reduces waste, saves time and enables optimization of the parts produced. Examples include: vehicle parts, toys, jewelry pieces, and the well publicized medical uses of printing body tissues and some organs.
The prospects of using 3D printing are vast and are game changing. Imagine that a consumer can walk into a car dealership and have his or her newly purchased vehicle customized on the spot, where the dealer will be able to 'print' some customizable features.
Experts estimate that in the future, companies will be able not to only utilize 3D printing in their manufacturing and production processes, but also provide some printing services to everyone.
Bringing the manufacturing closer to the users at home holds the premise of sustainable production, manufacturing and overhead cost reduction, and lowering the carbon footprint associated in shipping. Overall, 3D printing will reduce energy and also material use. It definitely reduces the usual waste that is normally incurred in the process of iterative design, prototyping, testing and the repeated cycles of failed models and redesign, till the desired end-product is achieved. Fallout material can be, then, reused in the next cycle of printing, promoting re-use, up-cycling and recycling behaviors.
One of the challenges is utilizing multiple materials in 3D machines. Today, there are several technologies that already do that in one device, where adhesives are used to glue multiple materials versus the traditional melting processes. Undoubtedly, there is room to innovate in this area and progress is expected in the future.
In a broader outlook, raw materials for printing may be warehoused and sold to businesses, various organizations and/or private users. Further, there might be copy-centers where people walk in, hand over a broken part and get a new one printed on the spot. One of the challenging aspect is not material use or the technology itself, but the adaptation of the design software, techniques and processes to be simple enough for most people to use on their computers at home.
1. Autodesk clean-tech partner program: www.autodesk.com/cleantech
2. The Clean Tech Nation Briefing Series, by Clean Edge: http://www.cleanedge.com/webinars