Thursday, March 6, 2014

Microfacture from 3-D Printing Part of the Solution to Carbon

At times in history, new technologies have profoundly changed the course of society. The development of the printing press allowed the mass distribution of books, which led to increased literacy and the development of a knowledge-based workforce. The steam engine led to the centralization of labour in factories, the mass production of goods, and the creation of our modern industrial society. The microprocessor led to the information revolution, providing massive computing power to businesses and individuals, and led to the rise of financial capitalism as the dominant global economic system.

It will become increasingly clear that 3-D printing technology will be one of the truly transformational innovations of the 21st Century, reverberating throughout our economic system. It will change the way in which goods are produced, marketed and purchased. 3-D printing will also significantly impact our social and environmental systems, ultimately becoming a part of the solution needed to reduce carbon pollution and address climate change.

Using digital models, 3-D printers construct objects by building them one tiny layer at a time. Similar to ink-jet printers, but able to use various materials as part of the printing process, 3-D printers have been around since the 1980s, but have only recently become affordable to small businesses and individuals. 3-D printers have already been used to create everything from customized medical devices (like hip replacement joints) to bikinis and, more controversially, guns.

Almost one quarter of the world's greenhouse gas emissions come from the transportation sector. Carbon-emitting fossil fuels are the primary power source of our globalized economy – a system built on the trade of raw materials and finished goods. There is a growing international recognition that reducing emissions from transportation must be a priority for the world if warming is to be held at the internationally agreed on threshold of 2 degrees Celsius. Already, Canada, the United States and other nations are acting on vehicle fuel efficiency standards in an effort to reduce carbon pollution.

But what if a technology allowed us to make many of the goods we use much closer to home, on demand? 3-D printing will revolutionize international trade – potentially ending the forward march of corporate globalization and replacing it with people-centred local economies. When the people control the means of production in their own communities, there isn't any longer the need for thousand-mile long supply chains to bring goods to market.

The on-demand microfacture* of customizable consumer goods will start to replace assembly line manufacturing. This will impact everything from the nature of the products we purchase to consumer shopping habits. With 3-D printing microfacture hubs, at the community or neighbourhood level, consumers will be able to order customized products from an internet catalogue and pick them up directly from the microfacturer, cutting out the middle man and attendant costs.

Coupled with local renewable energy systems and a truly smart energy grid, locally-produced goods are sure to be favoured by consumers concerned about prices. With 3-D printers, local businesses and even neighbourhood co-ops will be able to offer consumers competitive choices. The traditional consumer costs associated with labour, energy inputs, supply chain management, advertising, storage and product display will all be negligible and have a downward impact on price.

Large corporations may be at the most risk from shifting to a localized economic model – particularly in a world of higher transport costs as a result of putting a price on carbon emissions. Planning ahead for this shift should be a priority of our governments, but little attention is being given to how 3-D printing technology will transform our economy and our society.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

Originally published in the Sudbury Star, Saturday, March 1, 2014 (online: “May: 3-D Printing part of the solution to carbon pollution”, February 28, 2014).

*microfacture – I don’t know when this term was first coined, but I came across it the first time (in the context in which I’ve used it in this post) in the novel “Great North Road”, written by Peter F. Hamilton. In that novel, 3-D printers are fuelled by “raw” – interchangeable mixes of resources needed to print out a wide range of products from engine parts to coats and hats. If anybody has a more complete history of this word, I urge them to share it here.

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