Christopher Barnatt is a futurist, videographer, and Associate Professor of Computing & Future Studies in Nottingham University Business School. His book 3D Printing: The Next Industrial Revolution (from which quotations in this article are taken) was published on May 4th, 2013. ISBN: 978-1484181768. RRP $14.99 US / £9.99 UK / €11.50 EU.
3D printing is increasingly being heralded as the basis for a new industrial revolution. Not least, many now predict that personal manufacturing will democratize how many items are made, with crowdsourcing communities soon to able to compete with the monolithic manufacturing giants who currently produce most of the items in our lives.
At present, much of the focus in 3D printing is inevitably on specific 3D technologies and the kinds of items they can help us print. Yet outside of 3D printing’s own community, wider commentators are starting to recognize the technology’s potential to help us respond to the looming challenges of Peak Oil, broader resource depletion, and climate change. For example, as explained by Mike Childs, Friends of the Earth is about to embark on a project that will in part identify how 3D printing and crowdsourcing could help ‘get us out of the precarious environmental position we find ourselves in’.
The ecological footprint of the human race is already significantly beyond what the Earth can sustain. To avoid environmental catastrophe, over the next few decades we will therefore need to start using fewer resources, creating less pollution, and generally achieving more with less. Not least such a strategy will be forced on us due to the pending specter of PeakOil. This refers to the point in time when oil production reaches it maximum, and beyond which it will start to decline. Exactly when Peak Oil will occur is hotly contended. Yet practically all serious analysts believe that it onset lies somewhere between 2015 and 2030.
3D Printing to the Rescue?
So how exactly may 3D printing help us save resources? Well for a start, because 3D printing is additive rather than subtractive, it will allow us to consume and transport fewer raw materials. Many companies have already recognized this potential, with Rolls Royce now spearheading a European Union project called MERLIN that hopes to save materials by using 3D printing in the manufacture of civil aircraft engines. At present, using subtractive manufacturing methods, the production of a 1 ton aircraft engine can consume over 6 ton of metal. In contrast, using additive manufacturing techniques, it is hoped to produce engines with close to a 100 per cent materials utilization,
And talking of aircraft, another initiative, called the SAVINGS Project, has been investigating the use of 3D printing to reduce the weight of aircraft components. AsitreportedinFebruary 2012, just by 3D printing lighter seat buckles, the project has demonstrated that 3.3 million liters of aviation fuel could be saved in the life of the average passenger aircraft.
In addition to delivering such savings, 3D printing will also allow many things to be produced far more locally. Today, most manufactured goods are transported long distances and contain components made in many parts of the world. Almost everything we buy therefore burns a significant quantity of oil in transportation. In fact, logistics and transportation account for about one in seven sales dollars spent. The mass application of 3D printing to enable local ‘materialization on demand’ could therefore help change this current wasteful reality by allowing objects to be transported digitally over the Internet, and then printed out in local stores or even at home.
Whenever the above argument is made there are those who counter that 3D printers will never be able to produce items using the same materials and with the same surface qualities as traditional manufacturing. To this I would simply counter that the promise of any transformative technology is not to produce old things in new ways, but to make new things in new ways. Before and after the Industrial Revolution — and indeed before and after the consumer goods revolution of the 1950s and 1960s — the nature of the products in most people’s homes was very different. 3D printers may never be able to print leather goods. But they can already print such products in new kinds of plastics to which future consumers will become accustomed.
Next-generation 3D Printing Supplies
Of course 3D printers do themselves consume raw materials, and at present these are often oil-based resins or plastics. This said, many 3D printers are already capable of producing objects out of a bioplastic such as polylactic acid (PLA). Recent developments in syntheticbiology also mean that, within a few years, it will be possible to ferment bioplastics directly from corn, sugar beat or algae. By the time Peak Oil arrives, it may therefore be possible to grow local 3D printing supplies. In ten or twenty years time, it may even be common for retail outlets and some homes to cultivate vats of algae and synthetic bacteria in their yards or gardens, and which will serve as organic 3D printing supplies.
As another alternative, it may soon be possible for 3D printers to manufacture new objects from household waste. For example, a fantastic project called Filabot is already working to create a system that will grind up waste plastics and turn them into 3D printing filament. By the time domestic 3D printing goes mainstream, such recycling technology may be built-in to many models. Both garbage and old prints will therefore be able to be recycled into new items. Once again, increasingly precious oil will be saved.
A Return to Product Repair
The final way in which 3D printing will help us cope with Peak Oil will be by facilitating increased product repair. Today, when just one part of something breaks, we usually throw the entire item away. This is incredibly wasteful, and in a Peak Oil world of reduced resources and diminished transportation will simply not be an option.
One of the great promises of 3D printing is not just the local manufacture of final products, but the local printout of spare parts. In theory, with a 3D printer available, almost any broken item will be able to be repaired. Either spare parts will be stored digitally online and printed out when required. Or else broken parts will be scanned, mended digitally in a computer, and a replacement part 3D printed. 3D printing will therefore help to reduce the number of nearly functional objects that are consigned to landfill.
Localization over Globalization
Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we have increasingly relied on complex and dedicated production technologies that have had to be centralized far away from where most people live. But as oil and other resources dwindle this will no longer be possible. One of the greatest promises and drivers of 3D printing may therefore be that complex, multi-purpose production technologies may soon be applied at a very local level.
A 3D printer may potentially never make the same product or component twice, so allowing local businesses to become highly effective Jills and Jacks of all trades. A few decades hence, broad-market local businesses with 3D printing facilities may therefore be able to meet a wide range of local customer requirements just as traditional craftspeople always did in the pre-industrial age. And almost certainly, some items — such as toys, ornaments, basic spare parts and DIY fixtures — will be 3D printed in many people’s homes.