Is 3D printing the “next big thing” for ecology?

If you are interested in emerging technologies with disruptive potential, it is hard to avoid the growing hype around 3D-printing: printers able to reproduce a digital model by adding materials in layers, until the final product is achieved. If you think this sounds like weird science fiction, you probably haven’t heard about 3D printed bikes, jawbones, guitars and …. meat. And yes, there is a “Pirate Bay” for 3D printing called “physibles” which would allow you to download the code needed to print 3D objects.

3D-printed bike, image from policymic

Interestingly enough, a paper by William Sutherland and colleagues was recently published in TREE [PDF] where they explore emerging technologies which may have big implications for conservation and biological diversity. Among the list of issues you find rapid growth of concentrated solar power, wide spread development of thorium-fuelled nuclear power, ecological monitoring drones, vegetarian aquaculture feed and of course, 3D-printing. They write:

The environmental effects of a society that only prints what is needed could include waste reduction and decreased emissions from transporting manufactured goods. Additionally, spare parts could be printed in remote regions. However, printing on a whim could lead to an increase in resource consumption, higher energy demand due to transportation of raw materials, and pollution, if storage or disposal of chemicals used in household-level printing are haphazard.

Interesting first take on the issue, but seems like there is lots more to think about than simply the consumption of raw materials and energy.

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