Sustainably, efficiently, and with lower carbon footprint

The following article on 3D printing is an excerpt from my new book Integral Investing: From Profit to Prosperity that is available here.

In 2008, I went to my dentist to fix a painful molar. My dentist had just purchased a new device and wanted me to be the first patient to receive the gift of a 3D carved molar. I accepted without hesitation, of course, and 12 years later my veneer is still working. 

Dentists in general, but particularly those in Silicon Valley, have been early adopters of 3D printing. Since the year 2000, sales of in-office 3D printers in the dentistry industry have skyrocketed, and they are expected to reach US$ 3.7 billion by 2021.[1] The acceptance of this technology means that dental implants, dentures, night guards, and crowns can be manufactured not only more inexpensively but also more perfectly by being personalized through 3D scanning and printing.

3D Printing in Aerospace and Footwear

The aerospace industry was another early adopter of the 3D-printing technology, using it for prototyping simple 3D-printed plastic models of parts. Authentise, an additive manufacturing company, has already 3D-printed not only numerous metal segments for the Airbus A350, but also footwear for New Balance, Adidas, and Nike, and taillights for Bugatti Chiron.[2]

As many of the 3D-printing technology patents are currently expiring and the cost of printers has dropped significantly, we are set to experience an entire revolution in 3D printing technology that will create an entire new world in digital manufacturing and the supply chain industry. In order to be more economical, manufacturing counts on large scale production in vast factories. 

However, disruption is in plain sight, though. 

3D Printing Homes

From homes to engines, portable 3D-printer technology allows the making of objects in an effective and efficient manner—and virtually without waste, which is very important for reducing our carbon footprint. 3D printers are faster, better, smarter, and more efficient at manufacturing high-quality articles than traditional techniques. The variety of materials used for 3D printing now is enormous, running from various plastics to thermoplastics, from waxes and elastics to metals and porcelains, and from sugars to chocolates. This unlocks the possibility of printing door handles, food, to sophisticated integrated circuits.[3] Lowe Innovation Labs, for example, creates a digital file for the on-demand 3D printing of virtually anything in and at their home base.[4]

Although this technology is still developing, the social impact becomes also obvious: a 60-square-meter house can be 3D-printed in less than 24 hours for less than US$ 4,000.[5] The home contains one bedroom, one bathroom. one living room, a small office space, and all the necessary windows, doors, plumbing and electrical systems. Hadrian-X, the brick-laying robot from Fastbricks Robotics, for example, can “print” a house with three bedrooms and two bathrooms in about 72 hours.[6] 

The Humanitarian Impact of 3D Printing

The environmental upsides require further research, but the cut-price energy demands and lower pollution due to less transportation requirements are rather noticeable benefits. 

The humanitarian advantages are also hugely significant. Digital manufacturing enables immediate distribution nearly anywhere, and 3D-printed charitable aid—from disposable medical solutions to housing, shelter, and sanitation equipment—is already being provided in disaster areas by companies such as Field Ready.[7] Moreover, they bring local manufacturing to disaster zones, bypassing vast supply chains to offer new solutions that are better, faster, and cheaper from concept to the final products needed on the ground, and so they are essentially extending the reach of the aid they offer. This is particularly important in a post-COVIF-19 world.

In this new digital manufacturing industry, inventory will shrink, which could result in the practical reduction of shipping, and possibly even of the factory itself, thus significantly reducing CO2 emissions. Rather than shipping raw materials and finished products around the world, we will most likely send digital designs that our clients can 3D print themselves. We are entering a world where products will be designed and only their designs will be marketed. From auto parts to fashion, 3D printing on demand has the potential to reduce waste, produce a smaller carbon footprint, eliminate sweatshops, and offer fair treatment and quality pay for quality work. Furthermore, digital manufacturing addresses not only the liberty of design[8] but also the redesign of the whole business model whereby the design itself is sold or licensed and not the entire fabrication and supply chain. 

Democratization through 3D Printing

This is another good example of the democratization of a traditional industry in the same way that YouTube democratized video. Everyone with talent, proper equipment, and Internet access will be able to create, share, and market designs easily. As manufacturers will ultimately simply send digital designs to any user, they will also need to preclude piracy. That is finding ways to protect intellectual property rights and ensure patent protection and cybersecurity legislation that can be applied globally and dependably. As 3D printing occurs in real time, designers will be responsible for process monitoring to make sure that the standards are achieved and that the designs do not get hacked and/or lifted. 

The Future of 3D Printing

Moreover, 3D-printing technology has been evolving to the point where an object can be replicated using multiple images of the object instead of adding layer on layer. In their January 2019 article in Science, Brett Kelly et al. [Kelly et al. (2019, January)], described a new 3D-printing technology, nicknamed the “replicator,” that works like a reverse computer tomography scan that generates almost “no material waste and the uncured material is 100 percent reusable” said Hossein Heidari.[10]

This fascinating technology led me do a podcast and videocast with Lin Kayser, a German pioneer in the 3D printing field who is showing how we can use it to become more resilient, flexible, and adaptive in an ever-changing world. His passion is the Digital Physical Product Economy. He demonstrates how such an economy can help jumpstart innovation, enable the creation of a digital trade ecosystem, leverage global genius, create jobs, and provide the necessary solutions to our global grand challenges. 

Enjoy the podcast and/or videocast!