I’ll print that for you

Shipping containers. Source: Wikimedia. This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

What’s new?

On 27 January I attended an online webinar presented by Daniel Lazier, a mechanical engineer with the additive manufacturing company MarkForged, titled “Environmental Impact – Supply Chains.” Mr. Lazier discussed climate change, the impact of personal decisions as compared to the much larger impact of what he called “group choices,” the need to reduce the carbon footprint of supply chains, and the way in which additive manufacturing can have positive environmental effects.

What does it mean?

Mr. Lazier used an example of a MarkForged client who needed to manufacture and send a redesigned emergency part to various locations around the world. Because of the time pressure, the items were sent by air, which creates a large amount of carbon emissions. The alternate solution of sending a digital file to be printed closer to the places where the part was needed dramatically decreased the environmental impact and also made more economic sense.

Additive manufacturing can reduce carbon emissions by using material more efficiently (adding rather than subtracting material and the internal design of additive manufactured parts both reduce the waste of material), by requiring less electricity as compared to conventional machining, and by allowing slower and more efficient transportation (that is, by ship) of spools of feedstock. That feedstock can be used to create many products.

The ability to print at locations near the demand will be enabled by local companies but also by networks of printers. For example, MarkForged equipment is behind Project DIAMOnD, a State of Michigan initiative to create a distributed network of 3D printers able to print critical parts (for example, Personal Protective Equipment) quickly. The Jabil Additive Manufacturing Network is just one company offering to print your products in different locations around the world.

Even the supply chain of feedstock can be reduced by using local recycling to gather waste material, shred it, and extrude into filament for additive manufacturing, as described in this article “How to turn plastic waste in your recycle bin into profit.” See yeggi, thingiverse, pinshape, NASA, and many other sites for free or paid STL files for items to print.  

What does it mean for you?

In response to a question during the webinar, Mr. Lazier was quick to acknowledge that additive manufacturing makes economic (and environmental sense) for only some applications. If, for example, you are making millions of smartphone connectors a month, conventional manufacturing is better.

Additive manufacturing near to the place of use means that many products may be able to be printed on demand, with customization, creating a pull manufacturing process, rather than push. A 28 January 2021 article in Total Retail describes this on-demand economy, which reduces the need to forecast demand, reduces the need to store products until needed, and reduces the waste of products that were never sold. Even if your products are not ones that can be produced using additive manufacturing, you may find that some of your suppliers are using these processes.

With the announcement this week that GM will be carbon neutral by 2040 (driven by trends such as the amazing drop in batteries for vehicles) with the continued trend making renewable energy the cheapest source of electricity for utilities, and with the accelerating trend toward electrification in residential, commercial, and industrial sectors, our world seems poised to look very different – and much greener – in the future. Add supply chains to the list of business functions that are going to be redesigned in the not-that-distant future.

Where can you learn more?

These changes to supply chains are so new that no standard term has yet emerged, but “distributed manufacturing” or “distributed production” is the best I have found. See, for example, this article from the 3D printing company EOS, or this article from 3Dprint.com.

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