This 3D printer can only print plastic parts, but the goal is to make it possible to print circuit boards and metal parts in the future.

Socio-economic development is often described as a journey from an agricultural-based economy through industrialization to a service society. There is some truth to this: around the previous turn of the century a clear majority of Swedes worked in agriculture.

Today, only a small percentage of Swedes work with agriculture, which was a growing industry up until 1960. Today, the service sector is undoubtedly the largest industry in terms of the number of total employees.

Material things remain important

This does not mean that our consumption of material goods has decreased. On the contrary, a larger proportion of the products we consume are produced abroad. This is a natural development of growing economic integration. Imports as a share of GDP has increased in recent decades, and it is by definition, different types of material products that are imported.

Production and transport of goods will therefore remain an important part of the Swedish economy. And Swedish consumption will thus be an important area where environmental improvements can be made.

3D printers – Today’s fax machine

One technology that could help make consumption more environmentally friendly is the 3D printer.

3D printer technology works on the same principle as the fax machine allowing for making copies of an object without physically transporting the original.

Just like a fax machine, a 3D printer lets the sender and recipient do the same, but with three-dimensional objects instead. Actually, two things are needed: a 3-D scanner and a 3D printer. A 3D scanner reads the object – its design and setup. Most often, a laser rotates around the object generating information about its physical structure.

A 3D printer then re-creates the object according to the instructions the 3D scanner delivers. Because all the information is digital, the possibility then exists to modify the original or repair something that is broken.

Business Advantages

Today, objects that can be recreated in this fashion are still pretty simple. Almost all 3D printers use plastics today, but that will change.

So far, many of the products produced in 3-D printers are prototypes. But as the technology is refined it will be easier to produce finished products. Today, only 20 percent of what is made by 3D printers are actually finished products.

There are business benefits with this new technology. It is getting cheaper to transform an idea into a prototype to show possible investors. And it allows for the personalization of products, while mass production and economies of scale are maintained.

Environmental Benefits

And there are obvious environmental benefits. One of these is that a 3D printer, working through an additive process, uses less material. Thin layers of material are added to each other until the finished produced is formed. This reduces waste.

A more detailed and adaptable manufacturing process also allows for more optimized designs and individually customized products avoiding material surplus. Saving material and weight is in turn an environmental benefit.

An example of this is a project in Filton, England where aircraft parts are 3D printed yielding a weight reduction of 60 percent, a critical factor in aviation. One-kilo weight reduction on an airplane saves USD 3,000 per year in reduced fuel consumption, a win for both the economy and the environment.

And perhaps the most intuitive of all: 3D printers enable local production, which reduces the need for transport. There is no need to produce a product on the other side of the world and then transport it to the final consumer. Instead of buying the equipment one could imagine that the consumer buys the drawing, and prints the product locally. This will reduce the need for long-distance transport, and hence greenhouse gas emissions.

The assembly line’s final days?

3D technology is still in its infancy. But as the process evolves, more complex objects will be scanned and printed. Most striking is researcher Adrian Bowyer’s project, to develop a 3D printer that can print itself, or put in another way, a 3D printer that prints 3D printers. Perhaps the 3D printer will transform production processes as we know them.

Perhaps a more localized and customized process will replace mass production, which has dominated the industrial landscape since the days of Henry Ford. It would unleash very interesting economic phenomena and also allow for drastic environmental improvements.

The article was published in June 2011