In 2015, the U.S. imported $2.273 trillion worth of goods, with consumer goods making up over a quarter of the $595 billion total. Part of the reason for this glut of imports has been the decline in American manufacturing. It has been estimated that around 5 million manufacturing jobs have vanished since the year 2000. Today, for example, three quarters of all shoes bought in America are made in China, along with nearly half of all kitchen appliances.
However, the environmental cost of all this importing is huge. Emissions from global shipping stand at around round 1,000m tonnes of CO2 a year, with aviation adding a further 781 million. By 2020, shipping alone is expected to account for 17 percent of global emissions. As part of the effort to reduce the environmental impact of U.S. consumption, it is critical that as much manufacturing as possible is returned to U.S. shores.
The role of the 3D printer
The decline of U.S. manufacturing is not inevitable. By embracing new technologies, American manufacturing can be re-shored and revitalized, while adopting a far more sustainable model. A key technology at the heart of this 3D printing. The automated nature of 3D printing (coupled with technologies such as machine learning) lower barriers to entry for new manufacturers by cutting down on labor costs. Moreover, the adaptable nature of 3D printers means that less machinery is needed than with traditional manufacturing, again reducing the initial expenditure required, and meaning that local businesses will be able to manage orders that would previously have been fulfilled abroad. On top of this, since local manufacturers aren’t dealing with the same complex supply chain issues, they can be both more responsive and potentially cheaper than overseas competitors.
Additionally, although raw materials will still be required from overseas markets, there is still a net positive environmental impact, as raw materials take up less space than finished goods. For example, the plastic and rubber required to make shoes for 320 million Americans is a lot less bulky if it’s being shipped in its raw state than if it’s being transported as ready-to-sell goods. By reducing the amount of capacity needed to carry the same materials and manufacturing the final products in the US, 3D printing can reduce global shipping demands – a major environmental benefit.
Green is good business
The prospect of 3D-driven manufacturing becomes even more attractive when we consider how customer purchasing habits are evolving. More than ever, consumers are conscious of the environmental cost of their consumption habits, with 84 percent saying they seek out responsibly made and sourced products wherever possible. By reducing the amount of emissions created from shipping goods across the world, the sustainability of 3D printing becomes a competitive advantage over rival products.
This is also emphasized by the fact that consumers want products with a higher degree of personalization – a demand to which 3D printing is perfectly matched. Recent research found that 41 percent of people want personalized goods, a statistic that rises to 53 percent for 16 to 24 year-olds. Additionally, 3D manufacturing is additive rather than subtractive. This means that, rather than starting with excess material and discarding the unused bits, 3D printing is far more efficient in terms of production. By adding one layer at a time and using only the necessary amount of material required for each part, 3D printing enables manufacturers to vastly reduce waste.
Understanding the opportunity
In order to take advantage of the potential of 3D printing, manufacturers must make sure they have the right information at their disposal – to equip them to select the best materials and chemicals for use, which are deemed both safe and economical.
Yet as with any emerging technology, there are challenges. It is still relatively early in the discovery process for materials and technologies used in additive manufacturing. This lack of knowledge means that products currently being made this way can suffer from air pockets or similar problems, which can lead to performance or durability issues. In addition, additive manufacturing is currently energy-intensive and difficult to scale. However, research into these issues is already improving the performance of 3D printed goods, and we can expect this trend to continue as manufacturers race to standardize the quality of the goods they produce.
In order to keep up with the pace of innovation, manufacturers must make sure that their R&D department has access to the latest data on 3D printing – from published scientific literature on 3D printing materials characteristics, to safety reports, to conference papers, to media reports – allowing them to create maximum competitive advantage. Those charged with R&D must have the tools at their fingertips that enable them to quickly find the information they need that will support continuing innovation around 3D printing – both from a business and an environmental perspective.
By taking advantage of the knowledge that already exists and keeping their fingers on the pulse of emerging information, U.S. firms can seize the opportunity presented by 3D printing. There is also a strong market incentive for those companies that are bold about investing in R&D, with the promise of IP protection for successful breakthroughs. And for the research community, the early stages of additive manufacturing offer a golden opportunity to expand our understanding of manufacturing techniques and material characteristics. All too often, environmental issues are seen as standing in opposition to the current operating rhythm and immediate needs of the business, yet 3D printing is one area where interests can converge.
Christina Valimaki joined Elsevier in 2009 and brings 13 years of experience of helping clients in the information industry. Valimaki holds an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School and a B.A. from Wellesley College.
Filed Under: 3D printing • additive manufacturing • stereolithography, Industrial automation