Could 3D printing be a climate revolution?

by Caitlin Werrell and Francesco Femia | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 18 December 2012 15:58 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

By Caitlin Werrell and Francesco Femia

Humanity has lived through many ages and transformations. But as we stare at our computer screens, a new age is sneaking up on us quite unexpectedly - one that combines the durability and strength of the industrial age with the flexibility and adaptability of the virtual age.

It is an age that will be built not with hammers, but with printers - 3D printers. And these 3D printers could play a role in addressing complex 21st century challenges such as climate change.


3D printing, also known as “additive manufacturing” is the printing of physical 3D objects from a digital plan. Unlike traditional manufacturing processes that “subtract materials from a form,” additive manufacturing builds an object by printing it out layer by layer from the bottom up.

Additive manufacturing allows designers to create intricate structures that in some instances would be impossible to construct otherwise. While there is currently a limited range of objects that can be printed, cars, bikes, houses, and prosthetic limbs have all been printed. There are even 3D printers that can print other 3D printers!

 A notable use of the technology is by the U.S. military’s new Expeditionary Lab - Mobile. The lab is in use in Afghanistan, and is essentially a mobile unit that brings engineers, 3D printing technology, and a wireless support network of experts to troops to give them quick, on-the-ground solutions to equipment problems.

One example of the effectiveness of the lab was the rapid prototyping of a new battery charger, which allowed troops to carry a single battery charger rather than multiple (and heavier) back-ups. The mobile lab was able to establish a direct link between troops using the charger and the engineer designing the prototype, reducing the time to create the prototype by more than half.

Like many technologies first created for the defense industry, 3D printing technology has potential civilian applications. For example, the U.S. military’s mobile units could also be used for critical disaster relief operations, and to address the security implications of a changing climate.


Additive manufacturing has five key attributes that could help places as different as the United States and Pakistan enhance their climate-resilience, and ultimately, their security.

 1. Reducing the cost of tailor-made solutions. According to Chris Anderson, additive manufacturing is revolutionary because:

 “The traits that are expensive in traditional manufacturing become free. Variety is free: It costs no more to make every product different than to make them all the same. Complexity is free: A minutely detailed product, with many fiddly little components, can be 3-D printed as cheaply as a plain block of plastic. Flexibility is free: Changing a product after production has started means just changing the instruction code.”

 These qualities could dramatically increase the ability of communities to develop locally appropriate solutions for enhancing climate resiliency.

 2) Enabling rapid prototyping. The afore-mentioned Expeditionary Labs deployed rapid-prototyping to quickly develop a solution for troops. This concept could be just as effective in responding to climate uncertainties and risks. In fragile countries that are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, a quick response could help avert a humanitarian disaster, or a broader breakdown in security.

 3. De-globalizing hazards. When a tsunami in 2011 flooded factories in Japan that were the only ones in the world manufacturing specific car parts, it meant that Honda factories in the United States screeched to a halt.

With additive manufacturing, the ability to cheaply and easily download and print the missing parts could buffer downline manufacturers from unexpected breaks in the supply chain. Essentially, additive manufacturing could de-globalize climate-related hazards, and enhance the resiliency of markets to climate shocks.

 4) Introducing open innovation to the manufacturing process. To paraphrase the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Neri Oxman, additive manufacturing could democratize production and design. It offers the opportunity to provide “open innovation” methodologies, expertise and design solutions to any place in the world with internet access and a 3D printer.

With open innovation, a community anticipating or experiencing climate threats could present their concerns to an online global platform, where experts could quickly offer a solution or transfer “ready-to-print” technological ideas.

 5. Increasing Accessibility. Additive manufacturing could be particularly effective for disaster risk reduction or post-disaster assistance in some of the world’s most fragile and conflict-ridden states. For example, additive manufacturing would allow places isolated from the international community to print a shelter built to withstand location-specific environmental stresses, fix a broken water-pump handle, or meet other infrastructure needs.


Additive manufacturing is also inherently energy efficient. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, additive manufacturing on average uses 50 percent less energy and saves up to 90 percent on materials costs compared to traditional manufacturing. Because one prints only the desired product, it greatly reduces the amount of materials used, and the energy required for manufacturing.

Furthermore, since additive manufacturing involves sending data around the world via the internet, rather than sending physical materials, shipping, packaging and storage is reduced to almost nil, which dramatically reduces energy use.

Lastly, the ability to cheaply print complex designs leads to more efficient designs and products, reducing the “footprint” of a product, and often strengthening it in the process. All of these factors together contribute to a dramatic reduction in waste and greenhouse gas emissions.


The good news is that the United States does not need to start from scratch. Policies are already in place to advance these technologies, even if on a limited scale. In addition to the afore-mentioned Expeditionary Lab, the administration of President Barack Obama has recently invested $30 million dollars in a new additive manufacturing center.

The Department Of Energy has also noted the role of additive manufacturing for energy efficiency, and the U.S. humanitarian assistance and disaster relief community is starting to explore its benefits.

These are all good starts, but the full potential of this technology has not yet been tapped. If scaled-up, additive manufacturing could play an essential role in bolstering the resiliency of nations.

Caitlin E. Werrell and Francesco Femia are founding directors of the Center for Climate and Security. This blog is drawn from a report by the center.