With increasing concern for environmental quality, the processes by which new items are created are reviewed to minimize waste, reduce the consumption of raw materials, and amount of energy required for production. 3D printing allows the additive manufacturing of parts. As a result, it is no longer necessary to machine and assemble items individually. The application is in its infancy, but offers great hope for lowering the amount of raw material and energy needed to manufacture items for a wide range of applications.
Between the theory and the reality, a variety of other considerations emerged which need to be added for consideration. While 3d printing, most often from powdered metal, has less waste and uses less raw material, the cost of the powdered metal may be substantially more than the traditional source materials. So the cost of the raw materials is a primary consideration as a measure of the benefit achieved from additive versus conventional manufacturing.
Additionally, not all conventional manufacturing is equally wasteful. Some operations create low waste and others much more. The amount of net savings in waste needs to be evaluated for each item as to the type of raw material employed and its cost for each process. Some products, which are difficult to create and assemble using conventional manufacturing, achieve significant savings in cost and reduced waste in additive manufacturing. Other products which can be easily produced by conventional methods have an advantage in both speed and cost. So, the individual manufacturing processes need to be considered in a comparison.
The amount of energy consumed in production is yet another comparison point. Additive manufacturing tends to be slow and require high amounts of energy. Both the cost of slowed production and of the energy need to be factored. For products with high speed production of low-cost materials, the reduced energy costs might offset increased waste.
Finally, the required finish quality is an element of comparison, since additive printing produces a rougher finish. The cost of smoothing the finish needs to be factored for those parts where finish is a requirement and less so where it is not.
These are the early days of industrial applications of additive manufacturing. It clearly offers opportunities for lower waste, more efficient manufacturing, and reduced costs, but the calculations require careful consideration of a wide variety of elements of the process.