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Is 3D printing sustainable?

Is 3D printing sustainable?

September 2016

As 3D printing has made in-roads into countless industries around the world, experts are now asking just how sustainable and eco-friendly this new technology is.




From creating the world’s first 3D printed office to the world’s first 3D printed lower jaw for an 83-year-old woman, no one could have predicted the revolutionary technique of 3D printing which is creating waves in the tech world.

Today, experts maintain that the technology signals the third industrial revolution, and while the world is in the midst of this revolution, revelling in the phenomenal products it can create, a few global experts are asking questions: How sustainable and eco-friendly is 3D printing compared to traditional methods? Does it pose any environmental risks and do the benefits outweigh any negative effects?


An ongoing debate includes the question of waste.

For Sea Green Tree, a U.S.-based consultancy providing policy support in the areas of material and energy efficiency for a range of products (in particular consumer electronics and ICT), waste volumes vary by machine type but certain machines have negligible waste. This according to its report The potential of 3D printing to reduce the environmental impacts of production.

“Whilst literature on 3D printers often states that waste levels are near zero, due to parts being constructed using only the necessary amount of material, 3D printers do not necessarily compare favourably with traditional production techniques in terms of waste,” says the report.

In construction and real estate, it may be different. For Dominic Wright, Business Development Director of Generation 3D, a leading 3D printing company in Dubai, 3D printing is very efficient with very little waste. “It is estimated 3D printing in construction will reduce material use by up to 80%. Due to the shapes and designs a 3D printer can achieve, we can build much more efficiently. In other industries such as the aircraft industry, like Boeing, estimate that by using 3D printing for parts, they reduce waste by up to 30%,” he says.

While Wright agrees that of course there is electricity used in the process, there is almost no waste “as you are building additively and often in a more efficient way. There are certain shapes and geometries that use less material that can only be created by using 3D printing,” he says.


Earlier this year, the Illinois Institute of Technology published a study which revealed that typical desktop 3D printers emit harmful particles and compounds during printing.

The study looked at five types of commercially available 3D printers that print with nine different materials.

The team who led the study said exposure should be limited when printing. While particles emitted were small, it still presented something of a ‘worry’ to the team who were studying the effects.

However, the study does suggest that it is possible to fix the problem during manufacturing. The technology is still relatively new so changes and upgrades to 3D technology is a learning process, and manufacturers are already working towards improving it.

When it comes to CO2 emissions, the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, in its paper, A Global Sustainability Perspective on 3D Printing Technologies, says that the energy and CO2 emission intensities will be reducible by 2025.

Essentially, the university maintains that the environmental and economic benefits of 3D printing have the potential to transform traditional manufacturing through cost reductions, energy savings and reducing CO2 emissions.

It goes on to read that 3D printing can potentially reduce global manufacturing costs by USD 170 billion to USD 593 billion by 2025 in aerospace and medical component manufacturing.


Benefits range from cost-efficiency to a reduction in construction time, and for many experts these benefits far outweigh the negative effects.

Take for example Dubai, earlier this year Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum hailed the country as one of the major incubators of innovation and future technology, following the launch of the world’s first 3D printed office in Dubai.

The building is the first of its kind in the world prepared for actual use and has established the country as a leader of the 3D printing space. The full model took only 17 days to print after which the internal and external designs were adopted. Labour cost was cut by more than 50% compared to conventional buildings of similar size.

Steps were taken so that the office building will reduce energy consumption, and the latest technology has been used in the management of information systems within the building.

Earlier this year the government announced plans for its Dubai 3D Printing Strategy which will see 25% of buildings in Dubai built through 3D printing technology by 2030. The government believes that the technology is capable of transforming the construction sector by lowering costs and reducing the time it takes to implement projects.

Experts estimate that 3D printing technology can reduce the production time of buildings by 50 to 70%, reduce labour costs by 50 to 80%, and save between 30 and 60% of construction waste. These savings translate to enhanced productivity, higher economic return, and increased sustainability.

“My one belief is that the construction industry/cycle will become a lot more distorted,” says Wright of 3D Generation. “It will make it easier for architects to become engineers and contractors by using these machines and vice-versa. So we will see a new hybrid type of company emerging that is able to use 3D printing to gain a competitive edge.”


Major environmental breakthroughs have so far been made in 3D printing technology where traditional technology has faced challenges.

Last year General Electric (GE) announced a project with the Department of Energy in the U.S. that uses 3D printed turbines in a process that could make desalinated seawater 20% less costly to produce, compared to more conventional thermal evaporation approaches.

According to GE, 97.5% of the earth’s water supply is virtually inaccessible because water desalination is still too expensive and difficult to deploy at a large scale. Considering the global water scarcity, 3D printed turbines could be the solution.

3D printing is also working to provide a solution for the depletion of coral in oceans around the world, which are diminishing at a rapid rate. David Lennon, who helped in setting up Reef Arabia in Bahrain, and is co-founder of Reef Design Lab based in Australia, sunk the world’s first 3D printed reef in the Arabian Gulf in 2012, following an almost 50% depletion of Bahrain’s coral reefs due to overfishing.

Made of sandstone and designed to look like actual coral, it has a unique low carbon footprint and has opened up endless of possibilities for marine habitat construction. “The material does not produce the greenhouse gas emissions that concrete does in its manufacture and transport,” says Lennon. “We believe this technology can play an important role in climate change adaption of low lying islands by cost effectively rebuilding their barrier reefs and thus reducing coastal erosion.”

For Lennon the goal is to provide a mobile 3D printing barge that can travel from island to island, use local sand, and produce reef units that are deployed to rebuild natural defence against sea level rise.

So, how sustainable and environmentally friendly is 3D printing? The verdict is still out. But the benefits of this new disruptive technology seem to far outweigh the negative effects.

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