From producing human skin to combatting rhino poaching to feeding astronauts pizzas in space, 3-D printing is driving innovation across an impressive array of applications. Some are using words like “revolutionary” and “disruptive” to describe the technology—or even predicting a new industrial revolution. But what does this new field mean for sustainability? What are the environmental and social implications of this game-changing technology?
In short, it’s a story of contrast. Lighter, stronger parts manufactured through 3-D printing can reduce energy and greenhouse gas emissions. And because 3-D printing is additive manufacturing (i.e., objects built by adding thin layers of material, not whittling down), it can reduce waste. For instance, NIKE, Inc. has reported an 80 percent waste reduction for its Flyknit shoes, which are manufactured using 3-D technology. At the same time, 3-D printers can end up as e-waste—just like any other technology—and 3-D printing technology requires the use of data centers, which has implications for increased energy consumption and the use of carbon-intensive energy to power those centers.
There are also social implications. The technology could produce new jobs or, on the other hand, could automate some jobs. While it has vast implications for healthcare and disaster relief, such as cheaper, customized prosthetics or in-the-field manufacturing during natural disasters, the news has already been filled with stories of open-source 3-D-printed weapons.
Thankfully, this story is still being written, and businesses have a strong opportunity to maximize the benefits and minimize the negative impacts of 3-D printing. To get started, we interviewed BSR member companies and experts to build recommendations on how best to use the technology with positive impact, which we published in a report this November.
In the report, we introduced a three-part framework for ensuring the sustainability of 3-D printing. Companies should:
- Carry out comprehensive lifecycle assessments by mapping out the potential hotspots for 3-D printing across the value chain and including sustainability criteria in material selection to predict and measure impacts—including social impacts, such as worker health and safety.
- Integrate 3-D printing into sustainability strategies by building systems that can react quickly to changes in the technology, encouraging product design teams to use the greater freedom of 3-D printing to innovate on sustainability in design, preparing workforces for this new technology, and considering collaboration to share best practices and develop common approaches.
- Take a precautionary approach by recognizing that there are still uncertainties surrounding the sustainability impacts of the technology, which may be positive or negative, and that 3-D printing is not a silver bullet.
3-D printing is a young technology whose impacts cannot fully be predicted, but few see it as a fading fad. Companies can help make the story of 3-D printing one of positive impact.