3D printing has the potential to alter how we use — and reuse — materials.
3D Printing, the additive manufacturing process that “prints” objects, is a classic disruptive technology looking to go mainstream. It has been around for some time — it was originally developed in the 1980s — but until recently it has been limited to costly industrial manufacturing applications. That changed in the late 2000s when 3D printing was taken up by the open-source and do-it-yourself movements. Then cheap desktop 3D printers produced by companies like Makerbot started appearing in workshops and college laboratories around the country. But even with the explosion in interest and investment, 3D printing remains a niche and hobby product.
What 3D printing needs is a “killer app” — a use so valuable that it mainstreams a technology, like spreadsheets were for PCs and email was for the Internet. My favorite candidate is the circular economy.
When I was researching cradle-to-cradle business models for my 2010 book Earth, Inc., I envisioned a manufacturing system that worked like our only sustainable production model: the earth’s biosphere. The biosphere is sustainable thanks to a few core principles. The first of these is materials parsimony, meaning that a minimum number of material types are employed in production. The biosphere, for example, uses only four kinds of matter — carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon — to produce over 90% of every organism on the planet. Next is power autonomy, the idea that energy needs for production are generated locally and renewably, just as a tree taps into renewable solar power to manufacture blossoms in spring. Finally, there is value cycling, the principle that old products are up-cycled into equal- or higher-value applications. These three principles are why a creature like a rabbit can be biologically broken down and sustainably reassembled into a cactus, fish, or even another rabbit.
The amazing thing is that 3D printing can employ all three of these principles, setting the foundation for a viable circular economy. 3D printing’s additive manufacturing approach means that a single plastic polymer can be used to create a nearly infinite number of forms, fulfilling the principle of materials parsimony. Next, the recent development of a solar-powered 3D printing fulfills the power autonomy principle, allowing printers to work entirely on local renewable energy. And the final piece has also been demonstrated: An integrated recycling process that can take an old object, grind it down, and reuse it as raw material for the next printing run.
Imagine that you have your own 3D printer in your garage, or perhaps you use a printing merchant at your local shopping center. Most of the products in your home — tableware, furniture, finishings, doors, and so on — are printed products. When you tire of your side table, you pop it in your car and go to your printing merchant, who promptly throws it into a hopper to grind it down into new raw material. Then you select the new table design you want from the merchant’s terminal and press “print.” When you come back from your grocery shopping, your brand new table is ready and waiting for you.
While not all products can currently be produced by the technology, it is easy to imagine a large percentage of our goods being 3D printed, absorbing a big chunk of production into the circular economy. As novelist William Gibson said, “The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed yet.” The elements for creating a “cradle-to-cradle” economy are here. It is the killer app for 3D printing. With luck it will also be the death knell of our “take-make-waste” disposable society.