3D Printing – Impulse for a new industrial revolution?

3D printing technology is raising great expectations - not least in terms of reducing environmental burdens through resource conservation. A new report from adelphi and the Institute for Innovation & Technology analyses opportunities and risks of 3D printing from an environmental perspective.


Last year’s IFA (Internationale Funkausstellung Berlin) showed it again and again: 3D printing (additive manufacturing) is developing dynamically. Many see the future technology as the first step towards a new industrial revolution. This is justified by the characteristics of the production process: design freedom and the ability to manufacture products quickly, easily and individually tailored.

The current study "Focus on the future: 3D printing", compiled by adelphi and the Institute for Innovation and Technology for the Federal Environment Agency (UBA), identifies both environmental opportunities and challenges. Among the opportunities is, notably, the contribution to resource efficiency - through material savings, the printing of prototypes, and its use for lightweight construction. Challenges that should be further addressed through dialogue and exchange among stakeholders include, for example, reducing the energy needs of individual printers to further enhance the environmental footprint.

Walter Kahlenborn, Managing Director of adelphi, explains: “In addition to considering current opportunities and risks, it is also important to look far into the future. Through additive manufacturing, potentially any actors can become producers and production can take place relatively independently of location. These changes also need to be considered from an environmental perspective to further ensure product responsibility under changed production conditions while taking advantage of the many opportunities arising from the new design freedom, such as reduced environmental burdens by applying additive manufacturing in combination with bionics.”

Sylvia Veenhoff, the expert overseeing the study at the Federal Environment Agency, explains: “The UBA sees itself as an early warning system that examines emerging technologies such as 3D printing for possible future adverse effects on humans and the environment at an early stage, proposes practicable solutions and knows how to make use of the opportunities that these technologies pose for the environment.”

As a summary, Stephan Richter from the Institute for Innovation and Technology explains: “The life cycle assessment of 3D printed objects is process-dependent and is influenced by various factors. In particular, the possibility of implementing a structurally or functionally optimised design results in resource savings throughout the life of the printed objects. If the potential of 3D printing were to be optimally utilised, it could play an important role in transforming the existing economic system towards a sustainable circular economy.”