For many in the general public and the engineering community alike, the potential implications of additive manufacturing (AM) have excited the imagination. Popularly known as 3D printing, the emerging class of technologies has been heralded as both a revolution in production and an opportunity for dramatic environmental advance.

Yet while the technological capabilities of additive manufacturing processes are studied extensively, a deep understanding of their environmental implications is still lacking.

A new special issue of Yale's Journal of Industrial Ecology presents the cutting-edge research on this emerging field, providing important insights into its environmental, energy, and health impacts.

Though sometimes portrayed in the public realm as akin to an inkjet printer for making objects, additive manufacturing is primarily used as a production process in industry and encompasses a diverse set of technologies. What they share is the ability to produce products and components based on digital information by adding successive layers of materials rather than, as in conventional manufacturing, removing materials -- thus the label "additive."

"The research in this issue shows that it is too early to label 3D printing as the path to sustainable manufacturing," said Reid Lifset, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Industrial Ecology and co-author of the lead editorial. "We need to know much more about the material footprints, energy consumption in production, process emissions, and especially the linkages and alignments between the various stages in the production process."

Additive manufacturing is sometimes seen as inherently environmentally preferable to conventional manufacturing because of its potential for local production -- by consumers, retailers and hobbyists -- and because it is thought to allow zero-waste manufacturing. Research in this issue, however, indicates that the environmental performance is very sensitive to the pattern of usage and configuration of the machinery and the materials used.

"This special issue demonstrates the capability of industrial ecology to reveal important and often overlooked aspects of new technologies," said Indy Burke, Dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. "If we are to realize the environmental potential of 3D printing, we need to know where the challenges and the leverage points lie."

The special issue contains:

  • life cycle assessments (LCA) of AM processes and products
  • investigations of the process energy consumption of AM technologies
  • studies of operator exposure to printer emissions and hazardous materials
  • examination of the sustainability benefits derived from the complex geometry of parts enabled by the technology
  • analysis of supply-chain issues arising from the use of the technology


The Journal of Industrial Ecology is a peer-reviewed international scientific journal owned by Yale University, headquartered at the Center for Industrial Ecology of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, and published by Wiley.