Three-dimensional printing (3DP) represents a relative novel technology in manufacturing which is associated with potentially strong stimuli for sustainable development. Until now, research has merely assessed case study-related potentials of 3DP and described specific aspects of 3DP. This study represents the first comprehensive assessment of 3DP from a global sustainability perspective. It contains a qualitative assessment of 3DP-induced sustainability implications and quantifies changes in life cycle costs, energy and CO2 emissions globally by 2025.
3DP is identified to cost-effectively lower manufacturing inputs and outputs in markets with low volume, customized and high-value production chains as aerospace and medical component manufacturing. This lowers energy use, resource demands and related CO2 emissions over the entire product life cycle, induces changes in labour structures and generates shifts towards more digital and localized supply chains.
The model calculations show that 3DP contains the potential to reduce costs by 170–593 billion US $, the total primary energy supply by 2.54–9.30 EJ and CO2 emissions by 130.5–525.5 Mt by 2025. The great range within the saving potentials can be explained with the immature state of the technology and the associated uncertainties of predicting market and technology developments. The energy and CO2 emission intensities of industrial manufacturing are reducible by maximally 5% through 3DP by 2025, as 3DP remains a niche technology. If 3DP was applicable to larger production volumes in consumer products or automotive manufacturing, it contains the (theoretical) potential to absolutely decouple energy and CO2 emission from economic activity.
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