Al Gore’s new “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power” has him haranguing leaders who resist the Paris climate accords. Without stringent controls, he says, corporate greed will spew out carbon emissions and destroy the ecosystem. The only path to a sustainable world, he insists, lies in stepped-up government action.
That’s questionable on its face, partly because many companies have pledged to reduce emissions regardless of regulation. But the more important story is that new digital manufacturing technologies are going to substantially reduce pollution as a matter of course, whether companies wish it or not.
At the center of these technologies is 3D printing, which uses digital files to drive smaller, more flexible production lines than are economical with conventional manufacturing. 3D printing is still developing and is only now spreading to mass production. But in the next five to 10 years it should account for a sizable share of industry. As it matures, it will improve companies’ environmental performance in multiple ways.
Less Energy, Less Pollution
The Paris climate accords are mostly about reducing carbon and other damaging emissions in order to minimize man-made climate change. 3D printing will reduce emissions in several ways.
First, the greater precision enabled by 3D printing will reduce the cost and boost the efficiency of emission-free solar panels and wind turbines. Some experimental panels can capture a great deal of energy even on cloudy days – a potential boon to northern latitudes. These innovations will speed up the shift from fossil-fuel to carbon-free energy.
3D printing itself, at least so far, uses the same amount of energy as traditional manufacturing, but it gives off less smoke and other toxic fumes. Those emissions are also better contained and more scrubbed out of the exhaust with filters. HP Inc.’s new multi-jet fusion printer, for example, is “office ready” – it makes things safely right next to people at their desks.
The biggest gains may be indirect, especially in logistics. With printer farms and mini-factories closer to customers, companies will need much less shipping. And since the factories are producing close to actual demand, they’ll do less moving of goods in and out of warehouses. Fewer goods will be shipped long distances by railroads or ocean vessels due to local supply chains. Freight transportation is a large part of our economy – it accounts for about a quarter of all carbon emissions in the affluent countries.
UPS, for example, has a sizable business maintaining warehouses for industrial customers and then rapidly delivering specific parts as needed via airplanes and trucks. It recently installed a hundred large 3D printers at its central hub in Louisville, with the goal of reducing warehouse space and shipping distances. More and more parts will be made only as needed. And as 3D printers become easier to use, more versatile and lower cost, we can expect UPS to add printers to its regional and even local hubs and stores. In the long run we’ll have a lot fewer jumbo jets flying in and out of Louisville. That’s one reason the company increasingly presents itself as a logistics company, not a shipper.
Speaking of transportation, 3D printing will help in one more way. Aviation manufacturers are already using the technology’s flexibility for intricate designs. This isn’t about artistic creativity; it’s about making parts with less material but just as much strength as conventional parts with simpler designs. Honeycomb structures, for example, may eventually be everywhere in jets, cars and buildings because they weigh a good deal less than conventional structures. (Honeycombing also turns out to be a good insulator, trapping air inside the walls like multi-paned windows.) Over time we’ll get lighter products throughout the economy, so we’ll need less energy to move them around.
Less Waste, More Sustainability
3D printing’s benefits go well beyond carbon emissions. It is the leading example of additive manufacturing, where machines build products by precisely combining materials into a product one layer or dot at a time. The resulting product has only the material needed for the final product. In contrast, much of today’s industry relies on subtractive techniques such as CNC milling, where you get a rough shape and then whittle it down to the desired dimensions and finish. These traditional processes create a lot of waste, often discarding more material than actually ends up in the product.
Reduced waste is why Samsung, LG, Panasonic, and other manufacturers are moving 3D-printed OLED video screens. This is a big improvement over traditional methods of making OLED and LED screens that discarded a lot of rare and expensive light-emitting chemicals during production.
The technology’s flexibility also means companies will make fewer and higher value goods. Conventional production relies on economies of scale from massive factories, usually far from customers. So companies order large quantities and hope they’ve bet right on what customers will favor after the months it takes for delivery. When they’re wrong, the result is a mass of unsold goods that have to be sold at a discount. Those goods are often so cheap that people buy them anyway, ending up with things they really didn’t want just for the thrill of a bargain.
3D printing has much greater flexibility than traditional methods. With everything digitally coordinated, these factories can adjust their production lines, quickly and at low cost, to changing tastes. They can produce a greater variety of products while keeping them affordable, without discounting. We’ll also see more personalized goods. Already 3D printing is a big part of hearing aids and orthodontic braces, and is now moving into shoe insoles. Future manufacturers are much more likely to make only what customers actually want.
We’re going to move away from the throwaway ethic of the 20th century. People will buy less, and be happier with what they get — just what environmentalists have been telling us to do. As we make fewer goods with less material, we’ll put much less carbon in the atmosphere. We won’t need regulators to tell companies to do this. It will just make business sense.
Imitating Nature to Mitigate Climate Change
3D printing can also help reduce the damage from climate change. Conventional manufacturing yields products with simple surfaces, straight lines and boxy shapes, with minor curves. But nature is full of irregularity – which only 3D printing can mimic.
Take coral reefs, which serve as vital nurseries for marine ecosystems. Warming seas are weakening these reefs and making them vulnerable to adverse events. Biologists have tried to build replacement artificial reefs by sinking ships or dropping concrete blocks into shallow waters. But the polyps that latch onto rocks and create reefs prefer surfaces with tiny crevices and holes that give them protection from predators. 3D-printed reefs are much more hospitable, and researchers are trying them out worldwide.
Seawalls are another opportunity. As water levels rise, coastal cities will invest heavily in sea walls and dykes. 3D printing can generate complex curved cement surfaces that disperse wave energy in many directions. So these walls don’t need to be as thick and heavy as the equivalent walls from conventional manufacturing. Cities can build more walls in more places, and use less energy to do so.
Engineers and Entrepreneurs to the Rescue
All of this is actually an old story. Back in the 1970s, the economist Julian Simon made a bet with the biologist Paul Ehrlich. Ehrlich had warned policymakers that the world was running out of natural resources and needed drastic regulatory action. Simon countered that entrepreneurship would solve any scarcity problems. He bet that these resources would actually become more, not less abundant over time – and ten year later he won the bet handily. But too many environmentalists keep forgetting the power of business to solve the problems it creates.
Regulation—like the Paris climate accords would encourage—can guide companies to do the right thing. But it rarely provides incentives, unless it includes costly subsidies or tax credits. Capitalism’s profit motive is far more powerful. As firms figure out how to save energy and reduce waste using 3D printing, they’ll innovate without regulation.
We have an amazingly creative economy with engineers and entrepreneurs who keep surprising us. 3D printing is just one of many technologies we’ll need to draw on to prevent catastrophe. The solution to climate change is not primarily government regulation or the Paris Climate Accords. It’s the people and companies that spewed out the emissions in the first place, once they see a profit.
This blog was originally published online by Forbes magazine on August 2, 2017, at https://www.forbes.com/sites/richarddaveni/2017/08/02/who-needs-the-paris-climate-accords-when-you-have-3d-printing/#6930d6058645
Copyright Forbes 2017
Photo: Former Vice President Gore’s new movie focuses on government actions to minimize climate change, but our main hope lies elsewhere (Photo by Jim Bennett/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures)