Can 3D Printing Address Climate Change?

Can 3D Printing Address Climate Change?

By Hsien Hui Tong, Head of Venture Investing, SGInnovate

Hsien Hui Tong, Head of Venture Investing, SGInnovate

Climate change is a topic that is making headlines around the world. From mass demonstrations worldwide to the iconic Greta Thunberg standing up to the world’s leaders at the UN Youth Climate Summit, global warming is becoming a topic around which future generations appear to be rallying around.

However, growth continues to be fueled by consumerism. In this age of globalization, products are manufactured where it is the cheapest and delivered to customers who can afford to pay for them in other parts of the world. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) listed in an article in 2010 on Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data that the industry and transportation sectors combined, accounted for 35% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

Given that a significant part of industry and transportation is dedicated to maintaining the integrity of the supply chain with considerable redundancy and wastage, is technology, and more specifically, 3D printing an answer to reducing greenhouse gas emissions?

3D printing technology has been around since the late 20th century, but the crude plastic “trinkets” that were the output of the early machines are very different from its current applications. Today, 3D printing has evolved to be able to support large scale customized production, and print complex products using a wide range of materials that were historically not possible.

Technologies such as fused deposition modeling (FDM) allow products to be made from various materials, while mask stereo lithography (MSLA) allows very high definition items to be produced. There are also promising results from labs that are seeking to use 3D printing to build the cell scaffolding from which human organs can be grown.

For complex products, 3D printing provides greater flexibility to manufacturers at the assembly stage. Instead of having to purchase intermediate components from suppliers, a computer-aided design (CAD) model can be shared with the manufacturers, allowing them to print these components at scale with an industrial-grade printer. This reduces the need to transport parts from the supplier, leading to shorter lead times, reduced supply chain risk and a smaller carbon footprint. The US Army is already deploying such advanced printers to print replacement parts for vehicles on overseas missions, reducing their need to keep a large inventory of spare parts.

With the growing sophistication of 3D printing, more and more products can be built on a JIT (Just In Time) basis, that will ultimately lead to warehouses being a thing of the past. For industries such as the automotive industry, wastage will be sharply minimized. Automotive parts are often produced in vast quantities to meet the aftermarket needs that may or may not materialize. These then turn obsolete with the introduction of newer models and are disposed of.

Its flexibility in allowing customization at scale also makes 3D printing a critical process component in specific industries like aesthetic dentistry where a high level of customization is required. MSLA 3D printers like those from Structo, allow dentists and dental chains to meet the exponentially growing demand for clear aligners without the need to send the job to a manufacturing plant which then has to ship it to the dental clinic that ordered it.

It is clear from how 3D printing has evolved that it is a technology that can impact the way we live. Its value proposition of being able to produce upon demand and where it is required addresses a fundamental objective of every business. That it reduces wastage and the need for transportation, thus reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions, is just an example of how technology can solve both a business and environmental problem at the same time.

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