3D printed economics for climate change

National Klimamarch demonstrations in Denmark May 25th 2019.

I first found out about global warming writing a high-school project in 2002. The Intergvernmental Panel for Climate Change made clear since 1992 that the consequences of climate change would be global. Yet, 27 years later, the creation of global countermeasures is still the greatest challenge we face. Governments discuss complex carbon taxes and industrial incentives that seem too abstract to solve the problems appearing in everyday life. In response, activism and civil societies demonstrate to urge governments to go beyond these measures and address the problem globally. Yet, in these demonstrations, it is difficult to find tangible proposals coming from the civil society. Nick Snircek and Alex Williams (2016) criticize today’s activism for being reactive instead of proactive. They argue that there is a need to start projects for our future instead of reacting aggressively against the current direction. Snircek and Williams suggest that appropriating technology is the way to go beyond our current frustration and move forward. Can we use technology for fighting climate change?

Take the power the technology back (Danish)

Proposing ideas for the future is complicated because it is unpredictable. However, the focus of this blog is to talk about what can we do with 3Dprinting to build such future. Thus, in this case we argue that 3D printing is one of those technologies that needs to be appropriated to push the fight against climate change forward. Future businesses should experiment 3D printing for fabrication if we want make a difference.

Like many complex systems in our world, the global economy is like an onion. Under the surface it has different layers that one must understand before trying to change it. One of these layers is made of a concept called “value chains”. A value chain is a collection of businesses that each specialize in specific processes. These businesses work in chain to produce almost everything we buy today. Value chains take advantage of “economies of scale”. When someone makes just one thing, they become very good at doing it in large scales. They make it cheaper too.

Through the value chain, every business adds one feature to the product and ships it to the next one. The last thirty-something years have seen a huge expansion of these value chains all over the world. Value chains make the economy efficient because many of these processes require a huge investment in order to become experts and make them cheaper. A global economy lets value chains connect with the most inexpensive suppliers all over the world.

But global value chains have a huge problem: they are global. And this means that complex products like a car, a cellphone, a fridge, a lamp, or a tv, are produced in bits. One bit in Bolivia, one bit in Mexico, one bit in Canada, one bit in Malaysia, another bit in China, and then sold in Germany. Global partnerships need global transport which is one of the major sources for greenhouse gases. The environmental cost of transporting these products all over the world is called an “ill-structured” cost and there is no data that accurately shows how expensive it is. Unfortunately, there is no current alternative to global value chains, because not everyone can invest to become experts in everything in every country.

We have discussed before that 3Dprinting has a capability called “complexity freedom”. Through complexity freedom, the production complex systems is possible without making huge investments. Douglas Thomas (2015) suggests that this capability should be used in the production of complete assemblies that substitute complete value chains with local production. In addition, this fabrication strategy can also contribute to the creation of a “circular economy” where resource utilization is reduced by recycling waste locally.

Star Trek Replicator

However, changing value chains for local 3Dprinting fabrication is not a silver bullet. Traditional manufacturing methods are excellent at lowering costs, which means that fabricating simple things is still more valuable through value chains. Using 3Dprinting also has a complexity threshold. This means that in order to use it effectively, the fabricated product must be complex enough to compete with the production of value chains. Therefore, 3Dprinting is not a silver bullet. Early visions of 3D printing portrayed it as something like the “Replicator” in Star Trek, a machine that could reconfigure molecules to replicate almost anything. However, the complexity threshold says that 3D printed products should be analysed in a systemic level to know if their complexity is worth using the technology. In addition we could add an environmental analysis of the value chain. Both analyses provide us with criteria to select whether if using 3Dprinting is the best option for us and the environment.

Using 3Dprinting for the substitution of complete value chains also contributes to the creation of a “circular economy”. A circular economy recycles is resources instead of producing goods towards disposal. In a circular economy resource and energy efficiency are the ultimate goals. 3D printing contributes to a circular economy with the local production of highly complex products, recycling and upcycling of material, and efficient energy usage. 3Dprinting is part of a new economic infrastructure for this circular economy powered by green energy and connected through the internet. Jeremy Riffkin calls this new economic paradigm “the zero marginal cost society” because it has the chance to transform our thinking towards an economy of the commons.

In 3Dprinting we have accesible tools to explore and engage opportunities for diminishing the effects of climate change beyond the carbon taxes and complicated restrictions of governments. We can make of 3Dprinitng a smart choice if we leverage the complexity and environmental impact of the products we use everyday. Moving from our current value chain oriented economy to a circular one is achievable but it won’t happen if we don’t engage.






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