High-Leverage Design and Operation Decisions

The list of concrete actions on our ‘Sustainable 3D Printing’ page is separated into 4 priority categories. In this post, we’ll explore some of the high-priority, high-leverage decisions that can maximize your impact in progressing towards more sustainable 3D printing.

Since energy use represents the single greatest environmental impact of 3D printing (and the vast majority of the impact of each printed part), these high-leverage printer and object design principles and printer use guidelines focus on reducing energy consumption to the greatest possible extent.

Sharing 3D Printers

Understandably, part of the appeal of 3D printing for many makers is the ability to localize the manufacturing process to one’s own home. Buying a personal printer seems like the most obvious and secure way to achieve this goal. Indeed, makers who operate 3D printing on-demand businesses or prototyping services likely require a 3D printer to which they have sole access.

For pure hobbyist 3D printers, though, especially casual ones, sharing 3D printers or finding community printers to use rather than buying one just for oneself is perhaps the highest-leverage action to take towards 3D printing more sustainably.

Sustainability gains from sharing 3D printers, either privately with a friend or two or publicly through a community printer or makerspace, aren’t limited to idle energy consumption reductions (though these are indeed significant—transitioning two makers printing on two separate printers each for 12 hours a day to a shared printer essentially eliminates idle energy consumption). Shared printers motivate more mindful printing and consolidate space, transportation costs, and electricity consumption as well. The largely virtual nature of the design and slicing process makes 3D printers especially suitable for shared use: one doesn’t need to be physically with the printer to use it.

Local makerspaces in cities around the world (like OpenWorks in Baltimore and the PrusaLab in Prague) as well as more creative community maker resources (like the Chicago Mobile Makerspace) provide access to high-quality printers as well as design and ideation tools, all while encouraging community engagement, innovation, and entrepreneurship. While exchanging a personal printer for a shared printer may be a difficult and uncomfortable change for many makers, the improvements in sustainability, quality of prints and experience, and resource availability make it a very worthwhile one.

Printer Design and Operations

Many of the changes to consumer 3D printers that would improve sustainability must be made by manufacturers. Nevertheless, a widely informed maker community can exert strong market pressure on 3D printer manufacturing companies to prioritize these changes in next-generation products. If you’re buying your next (or first!) 3D printer, commit to seeking options that incorporate such changes.

Updates that would facilitate printer sharing include improved web-based operation and transportability, the creation of multiple user profiles on a single machine, and simpler toolhead (e.g. nozzle) changing to allow for different printing needs. Automatic low-power mode while not in use would drastically reduce idle energy consumption, which is not prioritized currently due to the monetary cheapness of electricity. Improved open-source slicing algorithms and filament options would give makers the opportunity to do what they do best: take a product and hack it to fit their wants and needs, which must include sustainability.

Even without commitments to these changes by manufacturers, makers can reduce idle energy by turning printers off during periods of disuse, filling print beds (especially on SLA/DLP/SLS printers, whose energy consumption correlates more strongly to layer count than object size), and printing mindfully with functional objects as a priority.

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