I’m generally a techno-optimist. My career trajectory has been built around my keen interest in emerging technologies, taking me from telecom to the Internet to clean tech. Looking out over the next decade, I expect that 3D printing will offer similarly unique opportunities – and challenges.
First developed in the mid-1980s, 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is sparking considerable interest within both the do-it-yourself (DIY)maker culture and the corporate manufacturing world. Initially, additive manufacturing was used primarily for rapid prototyping by large companies, but it’s now being used for the printing of end-use components and final products. In 3D printing, companies and individuals are able to make physical objects from computer aided design (CAD) software, by laying down successive thin layers of a material (feedstock). From 3D-printed cars and airplane parts to prosthetic joints and homemade crafts, there’s a flurry of activity signaling that 3D printing is coming of age. The most recent example of the industry’s maturation: the $403 million acquisition of DIY 3D printer pioneer MakerBot by commercial/industrial 3D player Statasys.
The possibility of transforming today’s centralized manufacturing model is tantalizing, both to innovative companies and hands-on hobbyists. This open and democratic vision of manufacturing, in offices, homes, and nearby “copy” centers, is not dissimilar to the revolution currently taking place in the electric utility industry (where individual homes and business are increasingly becoming energy producers, not just consumers). This model could turn much of the manufacturing industry on its head, bringing the design and manufacture of goods right to, or at least closer to, the consumer. If done right, it promises cleaner, more efficient manufacturing of lighter, more personalized products with a lower carbon footprint.
But what are the implications of such a manufacturing renaissance? What does it mean when just about anyone, practically anywhere, can design and make whatever they like? It raises a host of questions and issues, not the least which includes the potential proliferation of toxics-laden feedstock materials, untested nanotech particles, and even 3D-printed weapons.
Which brings us to the intersection of clean tech, sustainability, and 3D printing.
Just as many nations and individuals are choosing renewables, natural gas, and efficiency over coal-fired power, and fuel-efficient vehicles over gas guzzlers, we believe it’s imperative to have sustainability embedded into the 3D printing equation. This means ensuring the use of non-toxic, bio-based, recycled and recyclable feedstock materials. It means working to reduce the amount of waste produced and energy used in the printing process. It means providing transparency on these and other issues. Indeed, the intersection of clean tech and 3D printing is already spawning a host of interesting products and services. Kor Ecologic developed the world’s first 3D-printed car body, and is using crowdfunding in its attempt to bring its second green 3D-printed vehicle, the Urbee 2, to the masses. Another company, Mango Materials, is developing biodegradable plastics from waste biogas (methane), which could potentially be used as a 3D printing feedstock.
The 3D printing revolution, in which anyone can design and print just about anything, could of course simply result in more junk produced by more people. Janine Benyus, the longtime driving force behind the biomimicry discipline, in which practitioners learn from and mimic the elegant designs of nature, believes that the only way to guarantee a green 3D printing revolution is by developing processes modeled on the way nature builds living organisms. Instead of using a mix of synthetic polymers and binders, which are often toxic and difficult to recycle, she argues that these complex materials can be simplified. “Nature works with five polymers,” Benyus says. “Only five polymers. In the natural world, life builds from the bottom up and it builds in resilience and multiple uses. What would it be like to use only five polymer classes to build everything?”
An ambitious goal for sure. But whether or not we achieve all of Benyus’s vision, we do want to get 3D printing right. That will require significant foresight and planning – not something that humans are always good at. But I believe that if we can successfully mash-up 3D printing with clean tech/sustainability/biomimicry, we can address many of these issues head on and work to ensure a 3D printing revolution built on materials and processes that are zero-waste, circular, and abundant.
Ron Pernick is founder and managing director of research and advisory firm Clean Edge and the coauthor of two books on clean-tech business trends and innovation, Clean Tech Nation (HarperCollins, 2012) and The Clean Tech Revolution (HarperCollins, 2007).
Join Ron Pernick in conversation with 3D printing and sustainability experts Susan Gladwin, Autodesk, Janine Benyus, Biomimcry 3.8, Paul Susalla, Ford Motor Company and Jeremy Faludi on Tuesday, September 10th, 9 AM Pacific/12 Noon Eastern for an interactive webinar on this timely topic, the next in Clean Edge’s Clean Tech NationBriefing Series. Register here.