In the last several months there has been a lot of fuss and a deluge of articles about plastics engineering and what 3-D printing in manufacturing could mean for the economy both locally, nationally and globally, and what this new spike in demand for plastics will do to our environment. Luckily it looks like there will be a bright future ahead both for the economy and the environment.
The fact that a simple 3-D printer doesn't cost much more than a computer makes it ideal for use by at-home innovators and inventors. This will, and already has, vastly increased the number of people working on pushing the envelope of what this new production method can accomplish. Already people are printing clothing, technical models, replacement parts and functional machines. These people are helping not only to develop new applications for 3-D printing, but they're essentially funding and providing feedback to the 3-D printing industry to build better and more effective 3-D printers to make the next round of innovations possible, which in turn accelerates the rate of advancement again.
The environmental cost of the use of plastics in the last 100 years has been staggering. Beaches all over the world are littered with waterborne trash from halfway across the world and the Pacific Ocean is host to a floating garbage patch twice the size of Texas, to say nothing of the atmospheric damage cause by the production and proliferation of plastics. Can the transition to the use of even more plastics be anything but environmentally catastrophic if we suddenly find ourselves using perhaps twice the amount of fossil fuels as before?
The answer is yes, 3-D printing can revolutionize recycling by making it directly profitable to consumers as well as practical and easy. Most printing materials are fully recyclable and filament extruders are already readily available that can recycle your plastic waste into fully functional 3-D printing materials. If the item you make breaks or wears out you can simply recycle it into filament and start over. This could effectively stop all plastic pollution, as well as creating a demand for used plastics that could fund cleanup efforts.
Currently a vast portion of the costs of the goods that we use every day comes from paying for the labor and energy required to produce, market, ship, stock and sell them.
While some products simply can't be made with 3-D printing, others could become entirely obsolete within a few years. What's the point of going to the store to buy clothing when you can look them up online, insert your measurements, and print out a perfectly fitted item? Any money you pay would go directly to the designer, cutting out the entire supply chain and resulting in vastly reduced prices. If the material that you use to make the item is gained from recycled plastic waste from your own home, then the final cost of such a product would be a tiny fraction of what it costs at the store today.
Kyle Hurst has a background in 3-D modeling and B2B marketing. He's currently pursuing his education further and writing about 3-D plastic printing in his free time.