11 June 2014 – There’s plenty of scepticism around 3D printing but also an exciting buzz that, with the right refinement, it can offer transformative opportunities for manufacturing in a more sustainable economy, Murray Hogarth reports.
For the non-technically minded the really hard thing about 3D printing, or additive manufacturing as it is formally known, is how to describe what it really is and why it’s so important.
First you have to get your head out of Star Trek-style science fiction and into the real economy, here and now. Then you need to recall that before we had other breakthrough technologies, like the internet and social media, we really had no idea how they would drive whole new lifestyle choices and business models.
So here goes: 3D printing is the productive physical manifestation of the virtual digital world of contemporary information and communications technologies, and the manufacturing arm of the Internet of Things, and as such it can change nearly everything.
Now let me try that with some absolutely plain English, practical examples of what 3D printing may offer based on a brief desktop review of the literature and a creative sniffing of the air of possibilities.
MICRO MAKERS: Small-scale manufacturing can re-establish itself in the inner city and in the suburbs, in developed world economies, with specialist local printing hubs little different to today’s fast print shops and office supplies outlets. Add in 3D scanners and made-to-order becomes very powerful.
DESIGN HOUSES: Australia can be globally competitive at creating the digital designs and production instructions for patented products, which then can be sold for printing anywhere in the world, for anything from tiny knick-knacks to modular housing construction.
ZERO CARBON: Low or zero carbon manufacturing becomes readily achievable with neighbourhood 3D print shops running on electricity generated from rooftop solar PV panels, with the option of onsite battery storage so the machines can run 24/7 if required.
DECENTRALISATION: Like solar PV deployment, and energy efficiency retrofits, many of the jobs that can go with the 3D print era will be distributed throughout the economy, with plenty of opportunities for rural and regional areas and less reliance on centralised sites.
BRANDBAND BOOST: The National Broadband Network suddenly makes even more sense as the backbone for distributed manufacturing and specialist services such as customised medical applications including dental (those 3D scanners come in very handy again).
REMOTE ASSISTANCE: Aid to developing world economies can be distributed from technologically advanced developed world economies in the form of actual products with smart, more sustainable solutions already embedded.
So what’s the downside?
All of that sounds more positive than anything else – economically, socially and in many cases environmentally too – so what is the downside?
When the advent of 3D printing get critiqued on purely environmental grounds, comparing aspects of its life cycle with traditional forms of mass manufacturing, the outcomes are mixed at best.
It might reduce waste and eliminate a lot of transport nationally and internationally, but the footprint reductions delivered can still pale into insignificance when compared against energy use per unit of manufacture – specifically electricity – and there are other dis-benefits such as toxic indoor air pollution from melting plastics as the feedstock for much 3D printing.
There are quite justifiable environmental concerns that small, relatively cheap 3D printers will proliferate as the new must-have home appliance, devoted mainly to the production of trivial products, then become the next wave of e-waste. And there are sensible societal concerns, like the potential for inexpensive plastic handguns to be proliferated through 3D printing. As with the internet and social media, digital freedom can bring dangers for society as well as benefits.
Taking a bigger-picture sustainability perspective changes the equation dramatically. For techno-optimists, 3D printing ushers in a transformative era of manufacturing that helps to close the loop, enabling the circular economy, with aspects of bio-mimicry by matching nature’s ability to only make things when and where they are needed.
The clear potential for 3D printing is alluring:
- Bundling with distributed clean energy technologies
- Feeding off collaborative consumption with crowdsourcing of solutions and new business models shaped by the emerging “sharing economy’’
- Providing the physical output dimension of the virtual world with all of its fast-track ideas and creativity being expressed in real-world solutions
So, how is Australia tracking in terms of seizing on the transformative opportunities of 3D printing? Even as our traditional manufacturing base is collapsing, and the economy remains overly reliant on mining and primary production?
Governments not listening, but really should
Thus far there is little evidence that governments in Australia are paying much attention as another 21st century technology horse bolts, although there are obvious issues for policy action including IP rights, security and public safety, regional development, broadband infrastructure and more.
This probably reflects the truism that technology always outstrips regulation, and that’s not always a bad thing when government policy is being made through the rear vision mirror, as currently appears to be the case in Australia. On the business side, meanwhile, traditional vested interests with an enduring exposure to the old economy are likely to see 3D printing as more of a threat than an opportunity, while fast-moving new economy players will capture the richest prizes on offer.
As with the internet itself, individuals and local communities are likely to grab hold of 3D printing, go free range with innovation, and drive change in a grassroots upwelling of transformation. 3D printing is perfectly matched to the rising power of local sustainability, and local is everywhere.
Murray Hogarth is senior adviser to Green Capital, the business sustainability arm of the Total Environment Centre, which will feature 3D printing at STUFF, the next event in Green Capital’s series on innovation – HotHouse – at the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, 18 June at 6pm.