Week 11: 3-D Printing

“Amazing”. Without fail, every time I learn about a new breakthrough or application of 3-D printing on the news, I actually say that out loud. It truly is astonishing how digital technology is rapidly moving changing our relationship with the physical world.

After reading Fabricated: the new world of 3D printing by Lipson and Kurman (2013), amazing did not cut it anymore. Their description of what 3-D printing is might be the best one I have read until now: “When the platypus was first discovered, explorers thought it was a hoax, that a prankster had somehow stitched together a furry animal with a duck’s bill, webbed feet and a kangaroo’s pouch. 3D printing is the platypus of the manufacturing world, combining the digital precision and repeatability of a factory floor with an artisan’s design freedom.”(Lipson and Kurman, 2013, page 27)

It didn’t take long for a 3-D printing company to use the platypus for their marketing

However, the more I read about 3-D printing, the more my vegan and crunchy inner-self reminds me of the implications of massive printing and its impact on the environment. How much plastic are we talking about here? If excessive plastic is an issue now, with over 300 million tonnes of plastic being produce around the globe every year, imagine what it will be like when every household, business, school and hospital starts printing out plastic objects left and right?

This is why I was so taken by the story in The Guardian about the city of Pune, India, where startup Protoprint is working on converting plastic waste collected from garbage dumps into filaments for 3-D printing companies. Protoprint teamed up with SWaCH, a cooperative made up of local waste pickers, to pilot this initiative and ensure a sustainable approach to waste management. A potential win-win-win for the environment, the local waste pickers who struggle to make ends meet and for those who want to source a cheaper and more sustainable raw material for their 3-D printing.

Lipson and Kurman write about the virtues of 3-D printing, as it seems to provide a good, cheap and fast product, but they do highlight that there are hidden costs, such as the aspect of design, but as the case study describes, the filaments used for printing are quite expensive as well. “Although the word plastic has become a synonym for low-cost materials, 3D printing plastic isn’t cheap. In fact, the cost of plastic printing material quickly adds up to become a significant part of the cost of running a 3D printer.” (Lipson and Kurman, 2013, page 82).

The ethical filament produced from waste products, as opposed to virgin filament, would be cheaper to source, although according to the story, there are some quality and certification issues that need to be ironed out before calling this a complete success. There is also the issue of the manufacturer’s warranty, and how it can be jeopardised if non-proprietary materials are used.

Photo: Aman Trust, in www.downtoearth.org.in

The team of writers address the question, “Will 3-D printing help make jobs?” (Lipson and Kurman, 2013, page 45), and although I am pretty sure they did not have this sustainable development issue in mind when they wrote Fabricated in 2013, other aspects of sustainability were present in their work. As the authors describe, when plastic is born, it never dies. It is here forever. But approaches to make it a more “green, clean manufacturing” (Lipson and Kurman, 2013, page 197) are emerging. Innovative projects like Solar Sintering that use solar energy to power the 3-D printers and sand as the raw material.

Keeping all of these dimensions in mind, and in spite of the Protoprint and SWaCH collaboration still being a work in progress, if successful it could result in good business for 3-D printing, for the marginalised groups of waste pickers and for the environment.

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