You are here



Exploring 3D Printing and Sustainability
Adam Kenvarg
July 23, 2012 - 4:34pm


By Ben Chapman

Autodesk Intern - Sustainability Maker Advocate

Ben is a mechanical engineering student at Olin College whose summer internship is based at TechShop SF. He is working on designing, building, and sharing a series of projects that explore the use of Autodesk software for do-it-yourself projects relating to sustainability.

3D Printing Bike-Light Mount

3D Printing has the potential to revolutionize the way we manufacture things.  A piece like this bike-light mount uses about 20¢ of plastic and takes 30 minutes to print.


3D Printers: How You Use Them Makes All the Difference

I have been using 3D printing for several of my projects this summer and I’ve had many conversations about the interplay between 3D printing and the environment.  It’s been claimed that small-scale, distributed, 3D-printed, on-demand manufacturing will (eventually) help eliminate waste and carbon emissions. It would help reduce transportation impacts, eliminate wasted inventory, and allow people to share the digital “recipe” files for all kinds of useful items.  In its current state, 3D printing hasn’t reached those goals yet, and it has a lot to do with the way that people use the technology.

Thingiverse Silly Examples

A search through Thingiverse shows you that a lot of the things that people share and print have little or no useful value.  These are fancy accessories for a printed octopus, a mini batarang, a toy car, and a person's head.


Digital Designs to Physical Junk?

Much of the time, people print out little toys, trinkets, sculptures or other things with little or no useful value.  While it’s true that these can be completely customized and may not be forgotten and thrown away as soon as store-bought toys are, they tend to be more fragile than the store-bought alternative due to their material structure.  From an environmental outlook, it is probably not beneficial to use 3D printing to make swanky plastic trinkets: However if you do, you should print with PLA, a biodegradable corn-plastic, rather than the non-degradable oil-based plastics like ABS.

3D Printing vs. Store bought?

On another level, there are also many functional items being printed.  They have some useful value, and in many cases, there are store-bought things that serve the same purpose, but the 3D printed ones are more wacky, creative, or personalized.  

Unique 3D Printed Items

3D printers can create useful items that are much more personalized, whacky, and creative than items you would get at a store, like these objects on Thingiverse.  These are an egg cup, a cookie cutter roller, an iPhone case, and cake dividers.


There is no clear general answer on whether or not to print when there’s a store-bought alternative.  On one hand, your 3D printed item didn’t need to be shipped to you and you may continue to value it longer since it is more personalized and unique (leading to less waste).  

On the other hand, it may take 3 tries of printing it to get it exactly right (meaning lots of wasted plastic), and depending on your material and your design, a store-bought item might be more durable or less toxic.  If you are printing these kinds of items, I’d suggest prototyping your design in PLA, so that you can compost the test versions that don’t work out.  


3D Printing for Repair and Upcycling!

Two areas where, environmentally, it does make sense to 3D print are repair and upcycling. For repair, you may be able to print a small part that isn’t readily available from the manufacturer. This can extend the life of that product, which may have had a lot of environmental impact in its production.  

Thingiverse Fix Examples

It’s a net-benefit for the environment when 3D printing is used to repair devices or add useful functionality to items that would be thrown away. Sharing your design on a site like Thingiverse helps magnify your project’s benefits.  These are an inflatable pool cap, a foot for a blender, a juicer, and a u-clip.


For example, a friend of mine had an old lawnmower that had a broken gas-cap that he couldn’t buy a replacement for.  He 3D printed a new cap instead of discarding the lawnmower and buying a new one.  So, in his case, the environmental cost of printing the plastic part was offset by eliminating the need for manufacturing a lawnmower.  I’ve done an example of using 3D printing to repair the handlebar-mount for my bike light, on Instructables.

3D Printed Bike-Light Repair

I made an Instructable on 3D printing a repair part for my bike light.


Upcycling is another area where 3D prints come out as a net-benefit.  These are scenarios where we print items that add new functionality and lifetime to objects, especially ones that will be thrown away.  In one example on Instructables, designer Samuel Bernier made an attachment that turned a glass jar into an orange-juicer.  The glass jar took a lot of energy to produce, and would have been thrown away.  With his device, he prolongs the life of the jar and eliminates the need to manufacture another orange juicer.  

3D Printed Orange Juicer

I was inspired by the work of Samuel Bernier who designed a 3D printed object that upcycles a glass jar into an orange juicer.


Knife Sharpener

I’ve been working on a device that upcycles an old ceramic mug into a convenient knife sharpener. It will be on Instructables soon.


Check back soon to hear about more of my projects and follow me on Instructables. Stay tuned for a guide on making an awesome parabolic solar water heater! 


About Ben Chapman 

I am a new face on the Sustainability Workshop Team as an intern this summer.  I am an undergrad engineering student at Olin College, focusing in mechanical engineering and sustainability.  I am passionate about using engineering tools and methods to design and build solutions to environmental problems.  I’ve built high-speed recumbent bikes, converted cars to run on vegetable oil, and designed and built zero-energy walk-in freezers.

Ben Chapman

This summer at Autodesk, my title is “Sustainability Maker Advocate.”  I am based at TechShop SF and I am working on designing, building, and sharing a series of projects that explore the use of Autodesk software for do-it-yourself projects relating to sustainability.  In the last year, Autodesk released the 123D suite of free 3D design applications geared toward Makers, people that build things for fun.  We already see promising sustainable design innovation happening within the Maker movement and we want to show how tools like 123D can empower Makers to innovate even more around sustainability.




Designing a Sustainable Future

Autodesk is committed to helping designers and engineers create a future where we all live well and within the limits of our planet. We’re excited to lead the way with sustainable, forward-thinking business practices. Together, let’s design a sustainable future.

YouTube Channel