Banning 3D Printers for Environmental Reasons?

Gartner Analyst Nick Jones with an ‘interesting’ angle
ban 3d printing
A recent post on the Fabaloo blog links to Gartner Analyst Nick Jones who is apparently thinking a decade ahead. So here is what is coming?

…so at some point between 5 and 15 years in the future we’ll have low cost domestic fabbers for a few hundred euros. (if you haven’t yet seen it, take a look at the open source fab@home project which has designed a basic fabber for around $2K). The really worrying innovation will come a few decades later when a fabber can manufacture another fabber, at which point humans will be unnecessary (just joking, I hope).


… we really want an affordable domestic fabber? Fabbers will likely “print” objects using some form of plastic. So the inevitable consequence of mass market fabbing will be a huge increase in the amount of non-biodegradable plastic waste clogging up the planet for hundreds of years into the future. Should we maybe ban fabbers before the problem arises? Like most problems there are solutions, like biodegradable plastic. But if we wait until all the problems with a technology are solved before we permit it, then we will waste a decade or two of potential value; and in any case there’s no way we can predict all the social and environmental issues associated with a new technology before it arrives.

Ok, so most of the 2D paper printing that happens today that is read once (maybe) then disposed of would happen in offices and schools. Maybe the occasional shopping list gets printed out at home but for the most part the bulk of the printing, and the bulk of the waste will come from the commercial sector. I doubt that home fabbers will go to all the trouble of designing and 3D modeling an object, just to dispose of it carelessly. It is more probable that the item they produce themselves will have a much greater social weight and therefore be cherished as a valuable (even if re-printable) object.

Fabaloo points out: Other 3D printing also involve biodegradable material such as paper, wax, rubber, sugar, pasta, nutella or even living cells! A prime example of environmentally friendly (and inexpensive) 3D printing is MCOR’s paper-based 3D printer. The innovative use of renewable materials to be printed is being led by fabbers and their home cooked devices.

Thanks fabbaloo.

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I never heard of pasta or nutella being used as a fab material… interesting idea but the same could be said about just about every new technological leap. Is a factory shipping stuff across the world better for the environment than just some guy in his office making a few items? I don’t think so.


Christ, this is the second blog in my RSS to be giving this idiot attention.

Please. Reality check. How many plastic bottles are in the drinks department of your nearest service station? How many of those are being banned?

I mean I know you probably feel like you need to feel blog-space… but it’s ok. If the only thing you’ve got to write about is this, then please… take day off. Really, we don’t mind.

Poor Nick Jones ALMOST gets it. Yes, there will be an increase of custom made plastic parts (ignoring the very valid argument of bio-plastics). But more importantly, the build-on-demand manufacturing model defeats the very idea that we must create 150,000 of something in order to justify the cost of cutting an injection mold. This skates cleverly around the need to work towards economies of scale. As a result, fewer UNNEEDED plastic parts will exist. Fabbers, as he calls them, are definitely a part of the solution.

There is always hope that, since these are quotes from another source, this is all out of context and that Mr. Jones is being funny. Alas, I’m guessing that that is not the case.

Given that Nick Jones works for Gartner, which claims to offer “World-class research and insight”, this is a pretty shallow analysis. Not only does he repeat a question that’s been raised many times in the past, he’s seemingly unaware of any of the reasons why his prediction might be wrong. I’m not claiming that any of these are original, but some counter arguments to Jones’ doom-laden scenario include:

1. Domestic fabbers pretty much pre-suppose the notion of customisation and personalisation. And there’s an increasing amount of research which suggests that consumers place higher value on products that are more personal. As Duann points out, if people are printing out products which more closely meet their needs, arguably they’ll be less inclined to throw them away (unless they’re ‘persuaded’ not to, in which case Nick Jones’ argument is with advertisers and marketers rather than fabbers).

2. Even if the above point is incorrect, it doesn’t mean people will throw away the whole product. Plastic waste is bad, no doubt, but not nearly as bad as electronic waste which fills up landfill, leaches heavy metals into the groundwater and poisons those in the 3rd World who try to extract the valuable materials. Fabbing new plastic parts could mean people dispose of the outer covers whilst retaining the electronics inside.

3. Remember when you could take a toaster or vacuum cleaner to be repaired? That’s almost impossible these days because manufacturers don’t make spares for out-of-date models. But a library of 3D CAD files of spare parts costs nothing to maintain and could be a valuable revenue stream to a manufacturer that wanted to promote quality over short-term fashion.

4. As Jon says, shipping stuff across the world isn’t exactly a bonus for the environment. And what about all the (plastic) packaging required for transportation that wouldn’t be needed if the product were made at home?

5. Has Nick Jones ever been to China, or any other country whose economy allows factories to pollute the environment whilst making products for Western markets? If people have personal fabbers at home, you can be pretty sure they won’t be belching toxic fumes into their childrens’ bedrooms.

Like I say, none of these arguments are especially original. I’d expect an analyst from a “world class research” company to have been able to find a few of them before blogging on a subject for the first time.

Nick is right that we should consider the relevance of thinking about this in time. But apparently he hasn’t talked to people who have put a lot of thought into this. There are ecological threats, but there are even more opportunities.

If I’m not mistaken, Nick is mostly concerned with forecasting mobility. So he’s not claiming he’s an expert at 3D printing while he’s not. Poor Nick, just thinking out loud and now, because he works for Gartner, his remarks are countered by the entire online community. Anyway, here’s my rebuttal:

The time when we shipped music on disks is almost over. The time we shipped non e-books is almost over. Within 10 years, it will be normal for an increasing fraction of physical products to be shipped digitally, close the the consumer. With 100K Garages this could happen fast and for many products (because the long tail of the digital will start to apply).

Think of the potential size of this product category:

It allows us to fix things and counter product obsolescence.

Glad that the RepRap uses bio-degradable PLA as a main material and that we have a proof of concept prototype recycler. I don’t see such a dark future. I think 3D printing is part of our much more innovative future. It’s not a separate peripheral product that we will have in our homes, it’s a transformative enabling technology, much like the internet, that will catalyze physical product innovation.

I (can) speak from personal experience: I have a RepRap open source 3D printer. This week, it printed out another RepRap. It’s quite efficient compared to having lots of parts shipped from overseas and then realizing you’ve spent 80 dollars on pulleys that do not fit. After doing exactly this, I designed the part and printed it myself. The printed part did fit and I could instantly see if it wasn’t the wrong size before printing out the required batch size.

What about fabbers upgrading themselves? This saves you from having a new 3D printer every time. Just like we prefer to buy a new inkjet printer once the cartidge runs empty, because it’s hardy any more expensive than just the cartridge. What about people (re)using (junk) electronics combined with printed parts to make new things?

What about open, modular parts where you have ‘situated physical products’ that help you with a certain task for a week, and then can be reconfigured to help you with another task. I believe open source aids in this standards formation. Right now all our products have their own engines, batteries/power supplies while we use only a few at the same time. This ‘situated hardware solution’ requires a combination of generic and solution specific parts. That’s where fabbers come into play. Right now products are so integrated that if one thing breaks, we end up replacing it all.

One more thing: If the question is “Should we ban 3D printing on environmental grounds?” you implicitly assume that you could ban it. While theoretically it would be hard, how would you enforce it? It is hardly possible nor is it beneficial to try.

B.t.w. I’ve compared the environmental requirements for local fabrication (ship homogenous raw materials once) with centralized fabrication here:

Yes, it’s a bit short sighted.
“The really worrying innovation will come a few decades later when a fabber can manufacture another fabber”

I’ve got my own 3D printer that replicated itself this week 🙂

I’ve posted a response to this article:
Matt, good arguments. Missed 1 and 5 mostly.

The units that are plastic based should probably come with an ability to recycle finished materials. Developing those materials is obviously part of the solution.

The important areas that this analysis misses are how the ability to use on demand printing of 3d objects will reduce the need to produce unnecessary products that have to be transported internationally to sit on shelves of stores which themselves consume massive amounts of energy and materials simply by existing.

By cutting out the bulk of the physical part of the consumerist cycle we are removing a massive resource burden. To eliminate one of the most environmentally promising technologies because the materials that are currently used are sub-optimal is short sighted and completely misses the big picture.

I do agree with the majority of the comments!

There’s a huge opportunity with digital fabrication to get rid of silly shipping-around-the-world (this includes Fluid Forms as well, cause at the moment we only produce in Austria and are shipping stuff around the world)

We haven’t not reached the point yet where we are able to dislocate our production but we can’t wait doing so.

Only thinking of resources wasted with mass production and shipping around the world it’s clear that harnessing the power of fabbers makes perfect sense.

I do not think that the future should be in plastics, but I do think the future should be in dislocated and on-demand production close to the “point-of-sale”

I do also agree with the idea that things we make by ourselves or customized things that involve us emotionally in some way receive higher value and will not be thrown away carelessly.


What should be banned is the exploitation of the children who make the products we buy that could potentially be made with a 3d printer. Everything is a trade off. If they want to argue that using a 3d printer for rapid prototyping is environmentally unfriendly, then they must consider all of the benefits as well.

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