Environmental life cycle analysis of distributed three-dimensional printing and conventional manufacturing of polymer products

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With the recent development of the RepRap, an open-source self-replicating rapid prototyper, low-cost three-dimensional (3D) printing is now a technically viable form of distributed manufacturing of polymer-based products. However, the aggregate environmental benefits of distributed manufacturing are not clear due to scale reductions and the potential for increases in embodied energy. To quantify the environmental impact of distributed manufacturing using 3D printers, a life cycle analysis was performed on three plastic products. The embodied energy and emissions from conventional large-scale production in low-labor cost countries and shipping are compared to experimental measurements on a RepRap with and without solar photovoltaic (PV) power fabricating products with acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) and polylactic acid (PLA). The results indicate that the cumulative energy demand of manufacturing polymer products can be reduced by 41-64% (55-74% with PV) and concomitant emission reductions using distributed manufacturing with existing low-cost open-source 3D printers when using < 25% fill PLA. Less pronounced positive environmental results are observed with ABS, which demands higher temperatures for the print bed and extruder. Overall, the results indicate that distributed manufacturing using open-source 3D printers has the potential to have a lower environmental impact than conventional manufacturing for a variety of products. © 2013 American Chemical Society.

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ACS Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering