09 December 2014

Can 3D printing be sustainable?

Technology, innovation and engineering are going to be at the foundation of any step change in solving the greatest sustainability challenges of the next few decades, and the possibilities are very exciting:
 - mobility solutions with autonomous electric/hydrogen vehicles
 - platforms to embed trust in the sharing economy
 - smart grids, including demand management and community energy generation

Another example suggested as being a huge opportunity is 3D printing.  And although there are some positives, we need to be very cautious.


One of the key words which will support a more sustainable economy is 'repair'.  This requires that products can be repaired, plus there are viable services which can cost-effectively offer these repairs, without too much inconvenience for the user.

3D Printing can provide some opportunities here, as where products are modular, it may be possible to print out replacement parts, at a much cheaper cost than replacement of the entire unit.

An extreme case of repair is of course with our own bodies.  And although headline-grabbing in the last couple of years, there are genuine examples where bespoke replacement parts have been made for people.  DIY kits for self-repair haven't taken off yet, luckily.

R&D and light manufacturing

As new products are developed, or highly specialist limited items are required, 3D printing has an opportunity to minimise waste.  Previously, significant 'off cuts' may have been required to build a prototype, but 3D printing can now potentially create something precisely without any waste.  It can also be produced more locally, minimising transport costs.


When thinking about design sustainability, as well as ensuring products are durable, it's good to promote a secondary market, i.e. selling onto another user.  And this is where 3D printing causes some problems, as there are an increasing number of opportunities to print personalised gifts:

Asda's 3DME Service

Although personalisation can introduce an emotional connection to a product (so perhaps it's less likely to be thrown out in the short-term), it does mean it's also less likely to be attractive to anyone else, so ultimately will be thrown away, or stuck in a loft.  This is true, almost by definition, for any form of personalisation in product design, such as NIkeiD for trainers.

NikeiD trainer personalisation 

And if home printing takes off, will we end-up in a glut of weird looking plastic objects being touted on eBay, as well as plastic waste, where the nozzle calibration hasn't been done perfectly?

CUBIFY Cube 3D Printer

Still, it's better than printing 3D guns, I suppose!


For some serious applications, there are genuine sustainability advantages, like minimising offcuts and localising manufacturing.  However, it's unclear if the push for consumer-facing 3D printing services, or even 3D printers in the home is ever going to be sustainable.  And 3D printing serves as a useful example of how challenging it is to introduce personalisation into sustainable product design.

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