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3D Printing, the Eco-Friendly Guide: Power-friendly

Can 3D printers be Power-Friendly?

3D printers have been known to consume several watts of power while in operation, the cheapest printers tend to be the most power hungry type, to be more specific: Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) printers, mainly because of the “fused” part of the process, meaning it fuses or melts the material (generally thermoplastic filament or pellets). In order to do so, they need heat (from a resistance which transforms electric energy into heat); some printers have a heated bed (to avoid warping in some types of plastic), this also contributes to the power demanded by the printer.

There are several ways to reduce the power consumption of your 3D printer, the most known and easy ones are the following:

  • Filament (this varies the required temperature to achieve fusing)
  • Efficiency of the electric components (hot-end, stepper motors, motor drivers, etc.)


The filament

Finding a 3D printing material that is fully eco-friendly with a low carbon footprint value isn’t easy and in some cases, it isn’t cheap either.


Different 3D printer filaments, size, color, material and diameter. (Photo courtesy of aiorobotics.com)

Plastic is the main material used for filaments, specifically thermoplastics, this due to the characteristic they have to become moldable at certain temperature and to solidify when cooled. But you can also use some mixtures between plastic and biodegradable materials such as wood that can be used as filament.

  • ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene): petroleum derivate product, not biodegradable.
    (210°C – 250°C temperature range for 3D printing)
  • PLA (Poly Lactic Acid): made from organic materials, such as cornstarch and sugarcane.
    (180°C – 230°C temperature range for 3D printing)
  • PET (PolyEthylene Terephthalate): petroleum based, is 100% recyclable but not biodegradable.
    (210°C – 230°C temperature range for 3D printing)
  • Nylon (AKA polyamide): is a synthetic petroleum based polymer, reusable but not biodegradable.
    (210°C – 250°C temperature range for 3D printing)
  • PVA (Polyvinyl alcohol): made from organic materials, is biodegradable and dissolves in water.
    (190°C – 220°C temperature range for 3D printing)
  • Wood PLA: made from organic materials and real wood fibers, fully biodegradable.
    (200°C – 260°C temperature range for 3D printing)
  • HIPS (High Impact Polystyrene): is a white colored 3D biodegradable material safe for food use.
    (230°C – 250°C temperature range for 3D printing)

There are not many options that are biodegradable, the most common solution and the cheapest of the bunch is PLA, PVA is often used as a support material (for complex prints with overhangs, etc.) but is the most expensive bio-filament from the list above. Wood PLA is a good choice but is weaker compared to simple PLA, and HIPS is not an easy material for beginners.

Another important factor of filament is the required temperature of operation, and PLA also has the advantage of having the lowest temperature range (similar to PVA), this factor will help decrease the amount of power needed for operation.


The Efficiency

Hot-end (j-head):  is the most power consuming part of a FDM printer (and heated-bed if it has one). There are several iterations and proprietary versions of hot-ends but some are more efficient than others due to the engineering and design invested on the development of each one. Some hot-ends offer more surface contact with the filament helping reduce the amount of time needed to melt the plastic, others have better heat-transferring materials reducing the amount of energy dissipated between each of the pieces.

Hotend_collection-by-Brian Reifsnyder

Different hot-ends, some are generic, some proprietary. (Photo courtesy of reprap.org)


Heat-Bed: heat-beds are an optional part of 3D printers, this depends mainly on the filament material used, as some materials require heat in order to cool slowly and avoid warping on the edges of a 3D printed piece. In some heat-beds where the superficial area is large, they have the option to disable sectors, thus reducing the energy required to heat up the usable bed area.

Stepper motors:  most 3D printers use at least four stepper motors (one for the extruder), some use five (two for the Z-axis) and a few use six steppers (robotic arm 3D printer). If a printer has multi-material support it may also use one extra stepper for each additional material; the stepper motors should be correctly selected for the 3D printer, this comes along with the torque required to move the structure corresponding to its axis. In some cases, two stepper motors are required to move the Z-axis correctly. All these factors influence directly in the power consumption, in some cases where dual extruders are available, they don’t work at the same time, in others they can all be activated simultaneously.


Different nema stepper motors, they differ in size, torque, steps per revolution, steps angle, phases, etc. (Photo courtesy of ipcmotors.com)

Stepper motor drivers:  once you have your stepper motors, you need to control them, and to do so you need an interface that can handle the required currents of your motors: one stepper driver is used for each motor. How may a stepper driver affect your energy efficiency? You may ask. It all depends on the algorithms used by the driver to control the motor, due to the micro controller instructions, this is a huge factor that most of the times is not taken into account determining the speed and quality of the final 3D prints, but it has indeed shown to make a remarkable difference in these factors.


Two different stepper motor drivers modules with heatsink for 3D printers. (Photo courtesy of kalaakaar.in)

Power supply unit (PSU):  the power supply unit is the heart of the 3D printer; it will supply each electronic component with energy. The selection of the power capability of a PSU is the result of the sum of all the power consumption ratings of the components (and a 20% relaxed margin). This is important due to the efficiency of the PSU at a given percentage load, generally the efficiency increments when the load is between a 50% and 80%, but it will be determined by the PSU manufacturer and data sheet.


Different size, power and format industrial power supply units. (DeltaPSU.com)

Source: Personal experience and training.

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