While in-home manufacturing through 3D Printing holds great promise for innovation, it also promises to produce a lot of waste. Will a new wave of biomaterials green the next industrial revolution?

Living room manufacturing

3D Printing. It’s something you hear talked about almost every day in the Silicon Valley right now. The concept is simple: take some colorful plastic, heat it up until it melts, then extrude it with a precise machine to build any object, layer by layer. The limit? Your imagination, the size of said machine, and the type of plastic you are using. At least with that last part, there is opportunity to make this new wave of in-home manufacturing—being called the next industrial revolution—more sustainable.

swissnexSF 3D printing workshop

Workshop participant Simi Sharp checks out some 3D objects printed with biomaterials at swissnex San Francisco.

The world as we will know it

3D Printing has been around for more than 30 years. What has changed in the past months is that it is finally making its way into offices and homes with desktop-size printers that cost about as much as an average laptop (like the Series 1 from Type A Machines, priced at $1,400, or the Replicator 2 from MakerBot, $2,199). Startups, artists, educators, and the curious now have access to a tool that could potentially build anything. Itself included.

Series 1 3D printer

Type A Machines Series 1 3D Printer. Image Courtesy of Type A Machines

Take the example of Roman Jurt, co-founder of the FabLab in Switzerland (a maker space dedicated to creating technology from the ground up). When he needs a tool that the factory forgot to include in the box, he prints it. A part of the vacuum cleaner is broken? No problem, he can print it. And the designs are probably already available online, so he wouldn’t even need to know how to draw it out.

Roman Jurt Headshot

Roman Jurt, head of TEC LAB, explains his prototyping work during “The Ethics and Sustainability of 3D Printing.”

The power to prototype your ideas

If you go a step further and start playing with 3D design tools like 123D from Autodesk, you open a door of infinite possibilities. The objects that you have been dreaming of can become tangible in a matter of minutes. Imagine, design, print, improve, print again.

In early May, swissnex San Francisco partnered with Christian Haeuselmann of swisscleantech and Lina Constantinovici from StartupNectar to host the first international forum on sustainable 3D printing. During the Saturday workshop, a group of 10 people, assisted by Roman Jurt, created and printed an automatic plant-watering system in less than an hour and for less than $1. And they did it with sustainable biomaterials.

With great power comes great responsibility

Even if 3D Printing holds the hope of a manufacturing and innovation revolution, its first impact will probably be a lot of wasted plastic. You might get the perfect design for your new object after the 10th iteration. But what do you do with the first nine prints? And where did the printing material come from in the first place?

As Maurice Jutz, co-founder of the Swiss Centre for Efficiency, mentioned during the forum at swissnex San Francisco, Switzerland is trying to cut its carbon footprint by four by the year 2050. To get there, new technology, however promising it might be, will need to bring us closer to this goal instead of farther away. That goes for 3D Printing, too.

Luckily, companies like BioApply (Switzerland) and Mango Materials (San Francisco) are working hard to find new bio-based, biodegradable plastics to replace ABS and PLA, the most common plastics currently used for 3D Printing.

The future, you say?

The possibilities of 3D printing are enormous, and we have only just begun to see what people are able to do with it. Makers around the world are scanning in 3D from their phones, building houses with 3D printed bricks, and sometimes walking ethical lines by attempting to print weapons. One thing is for sure: 3D Printing is teasing our creativity and getting us back to making. And you better buckle up, because scientists are already talking about 4D printing!