3D printing is one of today’s most exciting emerging technologies – few other developments have as much potential to shape the way we make things and the world as we know it. Not only does 3D printing enable users to manufacture virtually anything, it can greatly reduce time and costs involved in creating unique objects. So far, the technology has been used to make everything from prosthetic limbs to jet engine parts, but that’s just the beginning. As technology improves and costs decrease, 3d printers are poised to enter the consumer realm – which means that we’re at a pivotal point in the development of the medium. At the Biomimicry 3.8 Education Summit and Global Conference this weekend in Boston, Biomimicry 3.8 founder, biologist and author Janine Benyus will explain how we can bring about a green 3D printing revolution by developing printing processes modeled on the way nature builds living organisms.
We stand at the cusp of a new paradigm in manufacturing, and the decisions that designers make now regarding the materials they use will have lasting effects. As 3D printing technology continues to develop, it it has the potential to blossom into a full-fledged sustainable manufacturing revolution. But that isn’t the course we’re currently following.
One common critique of 3D printing is that it’s just a new way to make more plastic junk. And indeed, many of the objects currently being produced by 3D printers are made from plastic. These objects are made up of a complex cocktail of synthetic polymers and binders, which are difficult to recycle. If we continue to use synthetic materials as feedstock, these materials will likely build up in landfills and leach toxins into the environment as the use of 3D printing becomes more widespread.
It doesn’t have to be that way, though. These complex materials can be simplified, Benyus argues, and the key to making 3D printing more sustainable can be found in the natural systems all around us. Nature relies on a very small set of “feedstocks,” or raw materials; a set of just five polymers make up most biomaterials found in nature, and 3D printing should adopt a similar five-polymer system so that materials can be fed back into a printer for reuse when they are no longer needed.
As an example of the divide that exists between complex manmade objects and simple materials found in nature, Benyus compares a beetle’s shell with a bag of potato chips. Both serve several crucial functions; the beetle’s shell provides strength, breathability and waterproofing, while the chip bag is waterproof, air-tight, and has labels printed on it. But in contrast to the shell, which is made of only one polymer — chitin — the chip bag contains different materials for each function. After the beetle dies, the shell biodegrades, but the chip bag is difficult to recycle.
In order to be more like the beetle shell and less like the chip bag, Benyus argues that 3D printing must conform to three basic principles:
1. The materials must be made from a small set of locally-sourced, non-toxic and recyclable polymer feedstocks.
2. The structural designs used in 3D printing must mimic those found in nature, imparting strength and flexibility.
3. A “take-back” system must be instituted that will enable products to be reconfigured as feedstock.
One of the most exciting things about 3D printing is that it has the potential to put the means of production in the hands of consumers. But that can only be realized if the materials used are greatly simplified so that source materials are, in Benyus’ words, “common, abundant, and local.” In addition to democratizing the manufacture of products, 3D printing has the potential to blossom into a truly innovative zero-waste system by mimicking the circular flow of materials in the natural world.