Revitalizing manufacturing is essential to U.S. economic recovery, but it’s not clear yet how this new phase might look. One thing is certain: it won’t look anything thing like manufacturing did 15 or even 5 years ago. PARC CEO Stephen Hoover has written and spoken at Techonomy events about how innovations like 3D printing and crowdsourcing can drive a paradigm shift in manufacturing. Meanwhile, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of MIT and Rodney Brooks of Rethink Robotics (all Techonomy 2012 speakers) believe robotics could give U.S. manufacturing an edge over countries where cheap labor has until now conferred advantage. But can a new American manufacturing approach also be eco-friendly? Techonomy spoke with Chris Park, a principal at Deloitte who helps clients with their environmental, social, and sustainability performance, about how next-generation manufacturing technology could reduce environmental impact and bring jobs back to the U.S.
How do you assess the way manufacturing techniques will impact the environment?
In our sustainability practice, we try to take a step back and look at resource scarcity from an overall-trend perspective—water, energy, natural resources and environmental impacts, biosystems diversity. Resource scarcity will have a growing impact on how businesses operate, in particular how manufacturers decide what to produce, how and where they produce those items, and how to most effectively distribute them. Resource scarcity challenges the traditional mindset of centralization and economies of scale, and points to more distributed models and more localized models that substitute technology for physical co-location.
Give an example of a distributed model.
Distributed printing, in the case of book production. In traditional printing, companies generate content and then massively centralize the production. So they have big plants that can convert paper into books. Then they box them and ship them out to retail bookstore locations. That centralization of production is being directly challenged by the e-book phenomenon and electronic distribution versus physical distribution of content. There’s also a more subtle challenge from technology-driven printing presses. From a sales perspective, I no longer have to have a huge plant where I bring everything in to produce the book and then ship it all back out again. I can publish and distribute on-demand at my retail site or as a web-commerce transaction. This fundamentally changes the economics and the business model, and the environmental impact, because number one I’m not producing excess books that become waste, and number two I’m not bringing a whole bunch of stuff in and sending it all back out again. I’m managing the content electronically and putting the physical production at its point of sale.
Does that extend to products made using 3D printing?
If the cost curves and the technology curves move the same way, I could actually create a physical product that is comparable in quality and cost and other attributes that are important to my customers. And if I can do that where they are, instead of having to bring a whole bunch of raw materials in and produce a whole bunch of stuff at scale and then ship it all back out again, I’ve fundamentally changed the environmental impact and the emissions equation. I’ve reduced the greater cost of the product because all of those embedded energy and emissions and water and waste costs are no longer in my system. And I’ve put the product closer to its point of use. That’s the direct link between sustainability and 3D printing as an emerging manufacturing technology.
Is there less waste in the actual process of additive manufacturing, of fusing particles together, than in traditional manufacturing techniques?
The short answer is, probably, but it’s hard to say with any certainty. When you think about the entire product design—the R&D to prototype to material build-up to scale production process—3D-printing technology changes a lot of that. Right now we see it a lot more in the prototype and small-scale side of things than we do in massively scaled production. But I think we’re going to see that change as the technology improves and the unit cost comes down.
What are the realistic prospects for 3D printing to impact large-scale production and infrastructure projects, like printing sections of highway in a modular way?
The most near-term adoption and scaling is probably going to come in products of a size and complexity that most closely matches the available technology—simple stuff made of plastics. That’s just a function of where most 3D-printing technology exists today. The physical size limitations and the material limitations are going to be the boundaries that establish scale and application. Longer-term, I believe you’re going to see both of those boundary conditions move. You’re going to see the materials boundary move as 3D-printing technology companies figure out how to put more diverse materials through the 3D-printing process. And you’re going to see the size constraint start to move, whether it’s multiple 3D-printing units printing components, which are then later assembled, or whether it’s physically larger 3D-printing units. If I could build a 3D-printing scaffolding around the perimeter of a building site, I could literally start from the ground up and 3D print my building.
Do you think industry will adopt and advance more eco-friendly means of production?
Absent regulatory changes or policies around energy emissions and waste, there’s going to have to be a market-based set of changes. As much as I would like to believe that reduced waste and reduced environmental impact will be the reason that people migrate to new products and new technologies, it won’t be. It’s going to be incumbent upon the manufacturers to measure and promote the reduced environmental impact as a benefit of the new approach. It’s going to be incumbent upon all levels of our educational infrastructure to start thinking about things differently.
Even in elementary school, we go into basic math classes with this idea of westernized, highly centralized, profit-oriented businesses. Economies of scale are just assumed to be necessary and important. All of that has to be re-evaluated. It could still be that for certain products and certain sectors, centralized production and economies of scale are absolutely necessary. But it could be that 3D-printing technology is so disruptive that you’re going to see a whole new landscape—less about brands being known for producing a product, and more about enabling people to produce a product they want, when they want it, in the way they want it.
This continued question about the legitimacy of climate science and the politicization of that debate means we’re unlikely to have any cohesive global or U.S. policy around things like carbon-emissions limitation or carbon tax or cap-and-trade. So manufacturers are going to be coming from a competitive standpoint, not a regulatory compliance standpoint.
Will the technology advance so quickly that cost and efficiency outruns the environmental imperative?
It’s a tipping point question. It’s still a fairly small-scale and not well-recognized technology set—capital-intensive, still somewhat limited by both the physical size and the materials that go into the 3D-printing solution. I think it’s going to go through an entrepreneurial phase, with lots of massive PR, and then there’s going to be a little bit more traditional adoption with some larger companies testing and piloting for a few years to figure out what works and what doesn’t work. In the meantime, everybody’s faced with pressures on capital investment, and so swapping out a big plant full of technology for a whole bunch of smaller, distributed 3D-printing presses is going to take time.
What other trends could propel a U.S. manufacturing renaissance?
The labor cost arbitrage that drove so much of that capacity off shore gets minimized over time, so other considerations become a bigger part of the map. For example, you have to do a life-cycle assessment of a product, and you consider the environmental impact and the cost associated with transport of various materials and assemblies to and from the U.S. to China and back again and then down to South America and back again. Putting the stuff closer to its point of intended use is an obvious thing to consider. That’s the meta-trend that’s going to drive much more repatriation of manufacturing capacity. The interesting thing will be, does it make its way back in some new technology-driven, distributed-production model, where local sourcing and local distribution becomes much larger? It’s the anti-Walmart model if you will, in terms of scale, where you’ve got lots and lots of distributed production with more locally sourced materials. It’s production on demand, which reduces the waste equation.
We’re fighting momentum and inertia here, but we will see more innovative business models where people say, “I’m willing to invest a little bit of personal or investment capital to test something different.”