Is additive manufacturing good for life?

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You could kill a frog if you print a frog. Such is the conundrum of 3D printing, as some of the more commonly used printing materials are aquatically toxic if poured down the drain.

Once we can push a button to print stuff in our kitchens, it seems it will be a more sustainable way of manufacturing. Yet although it is astonishingly easy to make something in the shape of a toy or utensil, it doesn't guarantee it is safe enough for a child to put it in its mouth.

Regardless whether it takes place in our kitchens, there is no doubt we would be better off with manufacturing that is safer for life. And while additive manufacturing aka 3D printing shows great potential for being a sustainability killer app in terms of reduced waste, weight and transportation energy (by printing locally), it has a long way to go to truly deliver the green goods.

To unpack these topics and steer industry in the right direction, we brought together a unique collaboration between academia via the University of California at Berkeley (UCB) Center for Green Chemistry; the Biomimicry Institute, a nonprofit; and a technology leader, Autodesk. 

We asked, "What does safe enough 3D printing mean?" and took a lifecycle approach to understanding this better. We quickly realized three things were needed: a definition; a framework; and signposts.

We used the term biofriendly materials as our focus was to enable the production of things that would be appropriately safe to humans and but also other forms of life, starting with the knowledge that the photopolymer resin Autodesk was selling at the time was in fact capable of killing fish in its uncured state. No secret, as Autodesk published the resin formula to allow hacks of the chemistry alongside its open-source hardware and software. Effectively we were hacking the hack, from a sustainability perspective.

Drawing on research for analogous use cases we published a framework in the Yale Journal of Industrial Ecology to help material developers understand levels of safety and other aspects of "biofriendliness" needed across the production lifecycle, based on who is printing what for whom. An industrially produced part for a jet plane that no one touches will have different impact from a hearing aid, or for that matter, a kitchen-printed fork. Finally, working with students at UCB, we identified exciting opportunities for paths towards safer materials, from sources as diverse as riboflavin and shrimp shells.

I’m pleased that others are evolving this work, including an industry roundtable led by the Northwest Center for Green Chemistry.

Additive manufacturing enables incredibly impactful innovation, from production of custom prostheses to housing at scale. Getting it right from the start is worth all our efforts and collaboration.