Environmental impacts of six 3D printers using
various materials were compared to determine if material choice
drove sustainability, or if other factors such as machine type, machine
size, or machine utilization dominate. Cradle-to-grave life-cycle
assessments were performed, comparing a commercial-scale FDM
machine printing in ABS plastic, a desktop FDM machine printing in
ABS, a desktop FDM machine printing in PET and PLA plastics, a
polyjet machine printing in its proprietary polymer, an SLA machine
printing in its polymer, and an inkjet machine hacked to print in salt
and dextrose. All scenarios were scored using ReCiPe Endpoint H
methodology to combine multiple impact categories, comparing
environmental impacts per part made for several scenarios per
machine. Results showed that most printers’ ecological impacts were
dominated by electricity use, not materials, and the changes in
electricity use due to different plastics was not significant compared
to variation from one machine to another. Variation in machine idle
time determined impacts per part most strongly. However, material
impacts were quite important for the inkjet printer hacked to print in
salt: In its optimal scenario, it had up to 1/38th the impacts coreper
part as the worst-performing machine in the same scenario. If salt
parts were infused with epoxy to make them more physically robust,
then much of this advantage disappeared, and material impacts
actually dominated or equaled electricity use. Future studies should
also measure DMLS and SLS processes / materials.
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