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Comparing environmental impacts of additive manufacturing vs traditional machining via life-cycle assessment

Jeremy Faludi (Mechanical Engineering, University of California Berkeley, Berkeley, CA USA)
Cindy Bayley (Mechanical Engineering, University of California Berkeley, Berkeley, CA USA)
Suraj Bhogal (Mechanical Engineering, University of California Berkeley, Berkeley, CA USA)
Myles Iribarne (Mechanical Engineering, University of California Berkeley, Berkeley, CA USA)

Rapid Prototyping Journal

ISSN: 1355-2546

Article publication date: 19 January 2015



The purpose of this study is to compare the environmental impacts of two additive manufacturing machines to a traditional computer numerical control (CNC) milling machine to determine which method is the most sustainable.


A life-cycle assessment (LCA) was performed, comparing a Haas VF0 CNC mill to two methods of additive manufacturing: a Dimension 1200BST FDM and an Objet Connex 350 “inkjet”/“polyjet”. The LCA’s functional unit was the manufacturing of two specific parts in acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) plastic or similar polymer, as required by the machines. The scope was cradle to grave, including embodied impacts, transportation, energy used during manufacturing, energy used while idling and in standby, material used in final parts, waste material generated, cutting fluid for CNC, and disposal. Several scenarios were considered, all scored using the ReCiPe Endpoint H and IMPACT 2002+ methodologies.


Results showed that the sustainability of additive manufacturing vs CNC machining depends primarily on the per cent utilization of each machine. Higher utilization both reduces idling energy use and amortizes the embodied impacts of each machine. For both three-dimensional (3D) printers, electricity use is always the dominant impact, but for CNC at maximum utilization, material waste became dominant, and cutting fluid was roughly on par with electricity use. At both high and low utilization, the fused deposition modeling (FDM) machine had the lowest ecological impacts per part. The inkjet machine sometimes performed better and sometimes worse than CNC, depending on idle time/energy and on process parameters.

Research limitations/implications

The study only compared additive manufacturing in plastic, and did not include other additive manufacturing technologies, such as selective laser sintering or stereolithography. It also does not include post-processing that might bring the surface finish of FDM parts up to the quality of inkjet or CNC parts.

Practical implications

Designers and engineers seeking to minimize the environmental impacts of their prototypes should share high-utilization machines, and are advised to use FDM machines over CNC mills or polyjet machines if they provide sufficient quality of surface finish.


This is the first paper quantitatively comparing the environmental impacts of additive manufacturing with traditional machining. It also provides a more comprehensive measurement of environmental impacts than most studies of either milling or additive manufacturing alone – it includes not merely CO2 emissions or waste but also acidification, eutrophication, human toxicity, ecotoxicity and other impact categories. Designers, engineers and job shop managers may use the results to guide sourcing or purchasing decisions related to rapid prototyping.



Many thanks to Karl Walczak at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, for his help in using and measuring the Objet printer. Many thanks also to Scott McCormick, Dennis Lee and Gordon Long, of the UC Berkeley mechanical engineering department student machine shop, for their help with the FDM and CNC machines. Thanks also to Mickey Clemon, Nancy Diaz, Anton Sudradjat and Moneer Helu of the UC Berkeley Laboratory for Manufacturing & Sustainability (LMAS) for their help with additional data gathering. A portion of this material is based on work performed by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, a DOE Energy Innovation Hub, supported through the Office of Science of the USA Department of Energy under Award Number DE-SC0004993.


Faludi, J., Bayley, C., Bhogal, S. and Iribarne, M. (2015), "Comparing environmental impacts of additive manufacturing vs traditional machining via life-cycle assessment", Rapid Prototyping Journal, Vol. 21 No. 1, pp. 14-33.



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