Columns / Discourse / April 10, 2013

Additive Alternatives: 3D printing presents potential sustainable solutions

Look down at your right hand; now look at your left. Glance at your palms, then turn your hand over and look at the freckles, blemishes and veins on the back of your hand. Pinch yourself. You are very much present, very much in the now. Very much not in the future.

Now listen to these words: 3D printing. 3D Printing. It’s a pretty unassuming phrase in the canon of exciting two-word phrases: bungee jumping, horseback riding, cliff jumping, etc. But when you realize the potential of three-dimensional printing you, like me, will have to pinch yourself.

A form of additive manufacturing technology, 3D printing is a production process that creates a three-dimensional object from a digital model. It does so by placing tiny layers of synthetic material on top of one another to create almost any shape or design imaginable. When this process was first described to me, I was sitting at a bar with my uncle (a computer dude) this summer drinking a Shirley Temple. Whoa, slow down there

Uncle Rob, I thought. Put that in terms an Average Chump like me can understand.

He pointed at the plastic sword penetrating my maraschino cherry. He told me that it took much more plastic to produce my sword than was in the sword itself. It was produced, as with mostly every product manufactured from traditional machining techniques, in a subtractive process. Plastic taken from a larger piece of plastic to produce the thing sitting in my drink. Wasteful.

3D printing, on the other hand, is an additive process. It uses the material necessary to create what is designed on the computer, and nothing more. There are infinite possibilities for production, and at the same time, infinite possibilities for limiting the waste produced from this production. Imagine a world where we print what we need at home, limiting all of the excess waste and fuel associated with getting a product from factory to market to home. This is what’s happening and it is blowing my mind.

Currently in its infantile stages of development, most modern printers only have the ability to work with easily melted materials. But this is not to take away that which is on the horizon. Various companies and researchers are working on printers that replicate things such as organ tissue. So, if you look down at your hand (or more appropriately your kidney, as it would need to be an organ) in 30 years, and you don’t have one, you could, theoretically, print one.

As Chris Anderson, former editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine, says, “[3D printing] will be bigger than the Internet.”  It’s hard not to believe that we’re living in the future, and if the future means less waste and sustainable world of manufacturing, then let’s celebrate and embrace what’s to come.

Max Potthoff
Max Potthoff is an environmental columnist for The Knox Student. He is a junior majoring in environmental studies and is a member of KnoxCorps, working with Cyclists of Galesburg. During his sophomore year, he was the sustainability chair for Student Senate.

Tags:  3D additive alternative Chris Anderson design Internet machining manufacturing printing solution sustainable technique Wired Magazine

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