3D Printing: A Potential Answer to Resource Depletion?

(After a short summer break I'm now back and straight into the deep-end with a topic that I believe may be increasingly relevant; the future of environmental resources and how 3D printing plays a potential role. Thanks for reading, Sam.)

One of the points I brought up in a recent white paper was the issue of resource depletion and its effect on, not just the economy, but on the very basis of how products are designed and built.

This same white paper mentioned that we tend to take for granted that certain products will always be here. Yet at the same time we also know that not all materials will exist forever - and that this should change how we think about building and designing products.

Peak Oil - What If?

For example, if we assume, as some already do, that Peak Oil was reached in 2008 and that over the next 30 years oil production from current known fields will fall by 50% there are some very serious implications for the way we run our lives. IMF economists give consideration to a scenario where oil production declines at 3.8% annually. The most alarming aspect of this scenario is that supply reductions of just 3.8% would lead to an oil price spike of 200% immediately and 800% over 20 years.

If so, then it is a certainty that the knock-on effects will be felt in virtually every aspect of our lives, particularly in the area of food costs and the production of every-day consumable goods.

Food costs - while not a major chunk of household expenditure for those in the developed world, is nevertheless the number one expense for many in parts of Africa, Asia and South America. Consider that in Egypt for example, the average daily wage is around $2US. What happens when the price of wheat doubles for them?

More Consumer Spending Growth - Is it Feasible? 

Closer to home, we've all seen in the current downturn, Keynesian economists calling for more 'stimulus' and 'consumer spending'  - but what happens when the cost of the plastics that go into our consumer goods and packaging doubles or triples?

From the perspective of a 3D printing company there are a number of areas in which 3D printing may be able to help in the mass production of goods. Production lines are inherently inflexible, requiring a massive capital investment in machinery. Even a relatively simple process such as how a bicycle chain is manufactured involves many different machines and can be a tiring process just to watch! With traditional manufacturing methods there is little incentive or tools for enabling change, innovation, and for thinking outside of the production line 'box'. Until now that is.



3D Printed Bicycle Chain – Created in a Single Production Step on the Objet Connex Multi-Material 3D Printer

3D Printed Custom Jigs and Fixtures for Production Lines

3D printing enables both manufacturers and consumers to think differently about how that bicycle chain gets to be installed on that bike. For example, the manufacturer may use 3D printing to create custom-made jigs and fixtures that, used at various stages of the production line, can streamline the entire process. This would then save product development time and reduce the end-cost to the consumer. Already today, custom 3D printed jigs and fixtures are becoming a common feature in automobile production lines, medical device production, aerospace and other heavy industries.



Medical Device Jig – 3D Printed in ABS-like Digital Material on the Objet Connex



Injection Mold Plates in Use – 3D Printed in Objet ABS-like Digital Material

3D Printed Injection Molding for Mass Production

A toy manufacturer can use 3D printing to create short-run molds. Molds are usually constructed from specialty tool steels and are expected to withstand hundreds of thousands and even millions of molding cycles. As such, molds are very expensive to start with, and the costs associated with mold construction increase significantly with part complexity. 3D printing the tool and injection molding the intended plastic into this tool has several advantages:

  • Get a real prototype in-hand, early on in the design process
  • Small series production using aluminum or steel tools cannot be justified any other way
  • Going into steel construction after initial mold validation reduces the waiting time to a working, final mold
  • Bottom line: reduced time to market for plastic parts and reduces costs involved

Avoiding the Production Line Altogether

Along with making efficiency improvements to the production line process is, of course, the much debated issue of personal manufacturing, where that bicycle chain will be printed in the office, at specialist shops, or even at home, thus cutting out much of the supply chain altogether. Maybe this is less a possibility for the initial bicycle chain and more practical for the replacement of worn out parts – but anyway, it’s worth considering the potential of personal 3D printing to work as an efficient lever that ‘squeezes’ some of the excess inefficiencies and therefore costs out of the traditional supply chain.

Thinking Anew about 3D Printing Materials

Using 3D printing to make the current manufacturing process and supply chain system more efficient is one thing – and may certainly contribute to lowering the cost of our consumer goods in future. But if we go back to our initial challenge – that of resource depletion, then I believe we require an even more radical re-think. And it’s here that 3D printing materials may be able to add a surprising dimension.

Material ConneXion is a material consultancy firm – one of only seven in the world. They operate a library that stocks and categorizes the newest and most innovative materials available today – a resource for designers, engineers and manufacturers to think about new ways of creating things using less energy and different resources. Among their catalog of materials are examples such as aluminum foam, conductive glass, translucent concrete, conductive inks, and there’s even a category for Objet’s photopolymer-acrylic-based 3D printing materials!



3D Printed Hand Created on the Objet Connex Multi-Material 3D Printer

If it is really true that we've already passed Peak Oil and the cost of the plastics that go into our consumer goods will skyrocket in the coming two decades we may see high speed 3D printing combined with plastic-like photopolymers as the new cost-effective way to go for manufacturing.

In the meantime, check out the video of Material ConneXion on the Economist website - and don't forget to look out for the 3D printed multi-material human hand in there!

This post is also available in: Chinese (Simplified), Spanish, Korean, Portuguese (Brazil)

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