Printing a resource-efficient world

By Tracey Grose

What if the means of production were in everyone's own hands? The tools for design and additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, are becoming more affordable and accessible. According to the US Department of Energy, "By eliminating production steps and using substantially less material, 'additive' processes could be able to reduce waste and save more than 50 percent of energy compared to today's 'subtractive' manufacturing processes, and reduce material costs by up to 90 percent." And industry analysts predict that the 3D printing industry is set to quadruple by 2025.

Developed in the 1960s, 3D printing has been used primarily for prototyping objects in the development stage of production. Instead of removing material from a wooden board or block of metal, additive manufacturing applies layer after layer to form an object. Today, 3D printing is used for the production of complex objects requiring high levels of precision, and different materials can be combined in new ways. A range of materials can be used including plastics, metals, composites and biological materials. Tools, toys, shoes, human skin, housing, and food can be printed. The input materials are advancing and new applications are surfacing. The expanding use of 3D printers will disrupt existing industries and open up manufacturing capabilities to individuals around the world.

What does this mean for the developing world? 3D printing doesn't require a developed industrial sector. Currently, 3D printing is already providing affordable options for people across a range of needs.

Prosthetics and wheelchairs for children are being produced affordably in war-ravaged parts of the world.

3D printed shoes not only offer new options in fitting and customization, shoes can also be made from recycled plastics. The University of Nairobi, Kenya, is developing a 3D printed shoe to help combat infections caused by the jigger fly. The project is called Happy Feet.

Replica kits offer affordable options for important tools such as water testing equipment, microscopes, and software programs for altering design files for local needs. The book, Open-Source Lab: How to Build Your Own Hardware and Reduce Research Costs, by Joshua Pearce, lays out the steps for replicating such tools affordably: "For example, my lab developed an open-source 3D printable colourimeter for water testing, which costs $50 (£30) instead of $2,000." Other organizations such as Tekla Labs and OpenLabTools support similar efforts.

What else is in store for the 3D-printed future? How about prescription eyeglasses, and buildings made from printed modular pieces or printed in one piece from a giant printer two-stories tall?

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