It is known that 3D printing has radically changed the automotive industry. Many large companies are now trading in seemingly outdated and traditional techniques of vehicle manufacture in favor of new, faster and more cost effective technology. 3D printing, and hybrid 3D printing have numerous advantages that make the methods appealing to manufacturers but there are also many ways that the technology can also be beneficial for the environment as a whole.
Benefits of 3D Printing for the Automobile Industry
The most discussed environmental benefit of 3D printing is its ability to reduce wastage. In the automobile industry, typical manufacturing processes of components cause waste of materials. 3D printing allows the designer to use on the materials necessary to complete the component, thereby allowing companies to not only save money by reducing the amount of material needing to be bought, but also helping the environment by reducing the amount of material needing to be disposed of. However, it should be noted that an assessment by sustainability researcher Jeremy Faludi found that some types of 3D printers actually waste a very high percentage of materials. He cites inkjet 3D printers which waste up to 45 percent of their polymeric ink. While this is not the case for many 3D printers, manufacturers must be careful when choosing the type of the 3D printer they use.
While the decreased is an obvious environmental benefit, another benefit of using 3D printing is the secondary effect of reducing CO2 through smarter, sparse designs. 3D printed products can be designed to take any shape, and therefore automobile components can be designed using sparse interior structures, which makes the parts lighter than those produced using conventional manufacturing methods. It is common in the automobile industry for car parts to be produced and transferred to other locations. By making the vehicles lighter, the vehicles used to transport them will use less energy and therefore less carbon dioxide, a known contributor to global warming. In addition to this, the automobiles themselves will be lighter, and therefore require less energy to run, saving the user money to run the car and also drastically reducing carbon emissions in the long run.
3D Printing Vs Traditional Automobile Production Process
In addition to this, 3D printing allows for more unconventional materials to be used. While traditional automobile production processes limit the type of material that can be used, the new technology opens the door to greener and more environmentally friendly materials, such as biodegradable or renewable materials. Instead of petroleum-based products, plant-based sourced materials, such as Polyactic Acid which derives from corn, could be used. This particular material is both biodegradable, renewable and non-toxic.
On the other hand, due to the fact that 3D printing has yet to become a widely used method of production due to the high initial expenditure, the lack of data means that many of the real questions that surround the new technology have yet to be answered. A good example of this is the idea of life-cycle sustainability. An assessment of 3D printed automobile components and their benefits to the environment must compare the life cycles of both new and traditional production methods currently available. Recently, there has been a surge to make production methods more environmentally friendly and efficient. Therefore, some traditional methods are actually more beneficial to the environment than are expected. The same amount of effort and research must be put into the 3D printing production in order to reap all the benefits this new technology can give.
It should also be noted that 3D printing itself uses a lot of energy to complete. Once again, data surrounding this claim is severely lacking, however one study found that heat or laser focused 3D printers need 50 to 100 times more electricity than traditional manufacturing methods to create the same object of equal weight. If this is true, many of the environmental benefits achieved by using 3D printing could be undone simply by generating the electricity needed to complete it using fossil fuels.
In conclusion, there are many potential benefits to using 3D printing as a method of automobile production, however, much more research needs to be undertaken in order to avoid the pitfalls of carbon emissions for the sake of novelty.