The sustainability of 3D printing is not new to us. From reduced material usage and transport to the literal printing of renewable energy technologies, additive manufacturing presents significant cost and energy savings. Much of the evidence for those savings has been speculative and anecdotal, however. Thanks to a study performed by engineers from several departments at MIT, there’s now precise, quantitative information available that demonstrates the monetary value of desktop 3D printers.
The abstract of “Life-Cycle Economic Analysis of Distributed Manufacturing with Open-Source 3-D Printers” summarizes the results of the study: “the recent development of open-source 3-D printers makes the scaling of mass-distributed additive manufacturing of high-value objects technically feasible at the individual or household level.” An open-source Prusa RepRap was used, costing about $575 to buy all the parts separately. To calculate the cost efficiency of the printer, 20 objects (a sampling: spoon holder, paper towel holder, shower curtain rings, garlic press, jewelry organizer) from Thingiverse were printed; each object met the following criteria: “1) printable in PLA with existing RepRap technology, 2) have a commercially available direct substitute, and 3) are likely to be purchased or owned by an average American household.” The cost of each print was tallied from the sum of material and electricity costs and then compared to a low- and high-range of costs for the commercially available substitutes. I encourage you to read the whole paper, but here are some highlights:
- “The total electrical cost for printing all twenty products was only 31 U.S. cents; it is inconsequential on a per-print basis.” That means running a printer 24/7 would cost less than $10/month.
- “Total avoided costs for the low and high retail estimates are about $290 and$1,920 (including a 20% failed print rate)” That’s a conservative fail rate.
- Calculations put the time of payback of the printer at 4 months to 2 years, but printing all 20 objects took about a day (25 hours). That means if all the objects are printed back to back, the printer could technically pay for itself in less than a day. In some cases of specialized customization like the orthotic, a printer can pay for itself in a single print; custom orthotics can cost as much as $800, but cost $1.38 to print. That’s a cost change of 57,000%.
- “PLA can be smoothed with a dip treatment in dichloromethane.”
- An iPhone 5 case costs 27 cents to print.
So many people ask the question of “how much does it cost to print something,” and now we’ve got MIT-grade answers. Most of the objects cost less than $1 to print with typical infills of 10% to 30%. The team calculated a very conservative estimate of 20% to 200% ROI. That’s conservative because it assumes users will print only these 20 objects and does not take into account the gas saved of going to the store (or shipping costs if ordered online). “The potential implications of these results are i)expected rapid growth of distributed manufacturing using open-source 3-D printing, ii) large-scale adoption and shifts to life-cycle thinking in consumption, iii) growth of localized cottage industries, and iv) a revitalization of hands-on engineering based education.”That’s significant, with benefits ranging from economics to education. Hopefully just the spreading of the results of this study will increase the rate of the said large-scale adoption.