It is no secret that 3D printing is set to change the manufacturing industry. Jack Hornick, an intellectual property attorney and author of 3D Printing Will Rock the World, a suggested textbook for "The 3D Printing Revolution" Coursera course offered by the University of Illinois Champagne-Urbana. I spoke with him about the energy saving potential of 3D printing.

When people started using 3D printing, the process cost more, Hornick explained. However, as they learned how to do it better and to apply the technology to various industrial uses, the opportunity arose to tap into its potential beyond customisation for a single use. As it becomes more integrated into manufacturing, the costs of the machines come down, so the overall costs come down, as well.

Among the ways that 3D printing contributes to efficiency is in the development of parts that are fully functional and lighter than their traditionally produced counterparts. That has been a particular boon to companies like GE, Boeing, and Airbus who use 3D printing to reduce weight of parts used in the aerospace industry, Hornick said. Some car manufacturers are also looking into the possibilities of using 3D printing because lighter parts translate into less weight and less of drain on fuel.

But that's efficiency in terms of the product used. Hornick points out that 3D printing itself can result in less energy expended over the supply chain. He believes 3D printing has potential to save energy in three basic ways:

  1. It uses less material, which translates into using less energy. Another terms for 3D printing is additive manufacture. As the items is built up by adding material layer by layer, the material is used much more efficiently. In contrast, subtractive processes, like milling, can remove 80 to 90% of the original material in the course of formation of the desired shape. As 3D printing allows for "topologically optimised design," it can be set up to have material "only where you need it," for "less material in the build process," Hornick said.

  2. One machine consumes less energy than multiple machines. In traditional manufacturing, it is possible for ten different machines to be used in the course of manufacturing something made from component parts. The ability to make the entire product on a single 3D printing machine can save a great deal of energy.

  3. In 3D printing, it's possible to produce things either right on the spot or very close to where they are to be used. That enables things to be made on the spot and on demand, both of which save energy. Without having to ship parts from far away, the energy needed for long distance transportation is saved. Also not having to keep items in stock to have them on hand when they will be needed saves energy consumed in warehousing.

The first two points correspond to what Mike Waltrip, general manager of Industrial Parts Services at ATS observed in Making Factories Run Better with 3D Printing. In fact, 3D printing can be more efficient and entail "a smaller footprint" than machines manufacturing does. The energy savings from on the spot or close production corresponds to what Nigel Southway said about supply chains in Lean Thinking for Sustainable Supply Chains: the shorter they are, the more sustainable they are.

All those reasons combined are why some auto manufacturers say that if you really want your car to be green, you'll want a 3D printed one. That's the argument made by Divergent 3D, the company behind Blade, "the world's first 3D printed supercar." It's not just fuel-efficient due to its lighter weight; it consumes less energy in the manufacturing process because the parts can be produced and in microfactories that shorten the supply chain. You can see one being assembled in the video here:

That's one example of the truly transformative power of 3D printing. As Hornick says, "If you're making things close to the point of need, everything changes." Where do you see the promise of 3D printing?