By Avi Reichental
July 23, 2018

Going vegetarian. Conserving energy. Cutting back on plastics. Using a fan instead of an air conditioner. Most of us are well aware of the many simple things we can do to combat climate change. Lesser known are the opportunities offered by 3D printing, which could further reduce our negative impact on the environment.

What does industrial 3D printing have to do with going green? More than you might think. From spinning carbon into concrete to eliminating shipping waste to converting our cars into lighter (read: less gas-guzzling) machines, 3D printing is creating new possibilities for individuals and corporations alike to take control of their eco footprint.

With hurricane season looming, we are about to receive yet another reminder that climate change has tragic consequences. It shouldn’t need repeating, but climate change is real and its threat to humanity is imminent. Glaciers are melting, temperatures are spiking, and for the average residents of planet Earth, as we tape up cardboard to our windows and eye the costs of electrical generators in case our power systems fail yet again, it can feel as if there’s little we can do to help turn the ever-rising tide.

3D printing—also known as additive manufacturing—is being used in the battle against global warming in many different ways. In my work as a venture capitalist, I am constantly searching for innovation, disruption, and creativity. The additive manufacturing industry overflows with companies that are thinking long term and refusing to sit idly as our environment suffers to the detriment of future generations. In the clouds of darkness that hover, these technologies could be the light. Here are five particularly potent examples:

Slashing shipping

Additive manufacturing entails uploading data to the web and then allowing for it to be downloaded by users anywhere in the world. With an Internet connection and a 3D printer, you can instantly create and print your own products and parts in-house—eliminating the need for global shipping on thousands of goods. Less shipping, of course, means less burned fuel, less packaging, and less storage (not to mention the significantly lower energy it consumes to cool, light, and maintain those storage facilities).

Reducing product waste

It’s not just reduced shipping requirements that will save energy. With 3D printing, items are created with a specialized printer that builds layer upon precise layer using functional plastics, metals, and engineered composites, enabling boundless product complexity with no cost limitations. This negates the need for separate parts to be individually packaged and then later assembled—the waste from the traditional machine shop floor is eliminated and only the product itself is manufactured.

Cutting emissions

Smoke, pollution, toxic fumes: All of these are inevitable byproducts of traditional industrial practices. Yet they are significantly reduced—and sometimes entirely nonexistent—when 3D printing is introduced to the manufacturing process. Many industries—from automotive to health care—are already adopting 3D printing into their production lines. The more we shift our manufacturing practices, the more we can slash our emissions and reduce our detrimental impact on the planet.

Making cars lighter

3D printing has become a manufacturing mainstay for creating car parts like gear shifters and door handles. Many of the automotive heavyweights, such as Volkswagen, have been depending on this technology for years to streamline their production. But the real key to energy efficiency lies in making vehicles more energy efficient, and with additive manufacturing, new materials, and generative design, we are now finally seeing entire car frames printed at a fraction of the weight of a traditional car, including major investments by companies like BMW and VW and complete cars from Local Motors, Divergent 3D and PolyMaker Industries. For automakers to meet and exceed today’s legislative mandates for energy efficiency, light-weighting is the only solution. And 3D printing is the linchpin of the entire process.

Documenting vanishing ecosystems

When storms, human waste, and environmental changes wreak havoc on precious ecosystems, it can be an immense challenge for environmentalists to help rebuild. There are now efforts to ease that challenge with the help of 3D printing. At the University of Sydney, for example, researchers are creating 3D versions of coral from the Great Barrier Reef. This provides a map for researchers to pinpoint how the structures are being altered by environmental changes, and—even more dramatically—creates a real-world habitat for the fish that eat the algae killing the coral.

It’s a miraculous underwater stopgap while long-term solutions for getting climate change under control are developed, and it’s one that is only possible thanks to a marriage of 3D printing technology and imagination.

The bottom line

Unbeknownst to most people, 3D printing has been quietly revolutionizing manufacturing, and positively impacting the environment in numerous ways. The new “green industrial revolution” enabled by 3D printing is in many ways as disruptive as its historical namesake—yet far, far friendlier to our increasingly fragile environment.

Avi Reichental is founder and CEO of XponentialWorks.

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