Is digital fabrication and 3D printing sustainable?

Tom dixon chair
CC BY 2.0 Lloyd Alter/ Tom Dixon's stamp chair and a Trumph Trupunch 3000

If I was to make a list of the top blogs I would want to have with me on a desert island, Low Tech Magazine would be near the top. Not only because it is always so fascinating, but it would actually be useful on a desert island. In his latest, Kris de Decker asks How sustainable is digital fabrication?

Lloyd Alter/ CNC Machine at Lamiera/CC BY 2.0

The first thing to note is that 3D printing, all the rage everywhere, is only one type of digital fabrication. That's why TreeHugger always called it downloadable design; there are any number of technologies that take instructions straight from computer to tool. He describes how CNC machines have been doing this for over 30 years:

CNC machine tools heralded the era of digital manufacturing. With CNC machines, human input is limited to the creation of a digital design on a computer, which is then automatically converted into a physical object by the machine tool.

Lloyd Alter/ Instant kitchen/CC BY 2.0

But there is a cost.

It's obvious that the switch from human- and water-powered tools to fossil-fuel powered tools has made manufacturing less sustainable. What's surprising, however, is that the switch from human-controlled machine tools to computer-controlled machine tools has much larger consequences for energy use. Automation is more energy-intensive than mechanisation.

Now that might not be obvious to everyone, that modern machines are less sustainable than human or water powered ones; most people would claim that the increased productivity and efficiency more than compensates. But as Kris notes, any increase in production leads to an increase in material use, and an increase in total energy consumption, mostly fossil fuels.

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The Maker Revolution

Kris is not impressed, and thinks that we are just going to burn more energy making more stuff that we don't really need.

Some environmentalists have embraced digital machine tools. However, this consumer-driven digital maker revolution is just as unsustainable as the digital fabrication revolution in large factories. We've been able to produce everything locally for decades using hand-controlled machine tools. Digital tools only allow us to produce more and faster.

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

And indeed, I have been making the case on TreeHugger for years that these technologies can reduce supply lines, inventory and waste while increasing our options. "we will download design on demand. "It is like the music for our iPod; dematerialized bits and bytes put together again where we need it, without the waste of a physical intermediary."

But so much of what I saw being produced at this year's CES proves his point; so much of it is junk, stuff we don't need. Read the whole thing at Low Tech Magazine.

Tags: 3D printing | Appropriate Technology | Downloadable Design