It takes up to 64 percent less energy to create the things you need in your home with a 3D printer versus making them in a traditional factory and shipping them overseas to American consumers, according to a recent study out of Michigan Tech University.
"The bottom line is, we can get substantial reductions in energy and CO2 emissions from making things at home," Dr. Joshua Pearce, who conducted the study, said. "And the home manufacturer would be motivated to do the right thing and use less energy, because it costs so much less to make things on a 3D printer than to buy them off the shelf or on the Internet."
Earlier research by Pearce found it costs about $18 to use a 3D printer to make 20 items found on the Thingiverse Web site versus as much as $350 to $2,000 to purchase them off the Internet.
The energy savings in the actual manufacturing process comes from building the contours of products into it, rather than carving them out of a hunk of raw material.
Put another way, if you are building something by adding layers of material, as 3D printers do, it is easier to simply leave empty space where you want a hole, rather than starting with a block of raw material and carving out the holes and other facets.
Furthermore, since products are made where they are to be used in 3D printing, there will be no need to transport them from the factory to the store, and, in turn, from the store to the consumer's home.
While that may be devastating for those earning their livelihood in the manufacturing and transportation industries, it is good for the environment.
Pearce notes there are variables that can "drastically change" the emissions equation in traditional manufacturing's favor though.
For instance, something made from a hydroelectric powered plant in British Columbia would be cleaner than 3D printing, he said.
However, making that same product somewhere like Pennsylvania or China, where factories are largely powered by coal, puts the advantage squarely back in additive manufacturing's column.
As the price for 3D printers continue to drop, Pearce foresees a time when one can be found in most homes.
Makerbot offers its Replicator 2 for about $2,200 and you can get your hands on a RepRap for under $700. Afate Gnikou, an African geographer, made headlines for building a 3D printer out of recycled junk parts and $100 in new materials.
"For the average American consumer, 3D printing is ready for showtime," Pearce said.
Before you trumpet 3D printing as greener than… oh say grass… it's important to note not all raw materials used in the additive manufacturing process are created equal.
Polylactic acid (PLA) is a type of plastic used in 3D printing made from renewable sources like cornstarch. However, some materials aren't quite as bio-friendly.
Many companies, like MakerBot and RepRap, offer printers which use the petroleum based Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) – the type of plastic used in products like Legos.
Jennifer Howard, a spokeswoman for MakerBot notes that the company offers a choice, with the Replicator 2 optimized for PLA and the Replicator 2X set for ABS.
"There are engineers that need ABS," Howard said, noting that its strength is ideal for products with gears or other moving parts.
Pearce, though, refutes that idea. He's conducted research that is currently under academic review that shows PLA to be much stronger than PLA.
Also, while Howard acknowledges ABS isn't nearly as environmentally friendly as PLA, she notes it can be recycled. In fact, she noted that New York City, where MakerBot is headquartered, requires recycling of all plastics.
PLA has its own unique properties which give it an advantage over its petroleum based brethren. For instance, PLA doesn't require a heated bed (or environment).
"You can run (the Replicator 2 using PLA) in front of a door, a draft isn't going to affect it," she said.