Can a 3D printer cool the Planet?  Stay with me on this..

As we once again hear that the 1990 IPCC Climate modelling for the planet is “on trend” or  “coming true”, I ponder the relationship between some of the major policy challenges Australia faces and see opportunity where at present we seem only to be experiencing confusion and much hand-wringing. It appears as clear as it was in 1990 that climate is the context for all other policy work.

There is no doubt that past and current political leaders have dropped the ball, and if my understanding of the research is correct, we have already locked in a temperature rise that current political leaders appear too timid or intellectually incapable of addressing.

We need greater strategic collaboration between education, IT, manufacturing, workforce and environmental portfolios than ever before. This is a challenge for all levels of government.

You might ask what the Climate, Australia’s NBN, Employment and Education policies have to do with one another? … Well, that’s my point.

There appears little or no effort [or perhaps ability] to truly connect some of the major policy challenges facing the country and the globe. Australia, as a nation, is very well placed to respond to and lead the changes required to address the challenges of global climate change and simultaneously address the current national and global debates about education and skills for modern communities and their economies.

There is [rightly] much concern in policy circles about the skills and opportunities that will be available to young people in the future. There is also, [rightly] concern about the relative level of skills and employability within the Australian workforce and the competitive advantage [or lack there-of] of the Nation over the coming decades.

If one looks at [for example] the current political debates surrounding teacher salaries and school performance, infrastructure spending for the National  Broadband Network, the tense debates on Murray Darling Basin and particularly the ongoing critical debate about the necessary ”adjustments” or  ”transformations” required in the Australian manufacturing industry, it would be easy to be overwhelmed by any one issue and you would certainly be excused for not relating one issue to the next, let alone, the debate about climate change.

I was struck by a piece from The Economist in 2011:

More than 20% of the output of 3D printers is now final products rather than prototypes, according to Terry Wohlers, who runs a research firm specialising in the field. He predicts that this will rise to 50% by 2020.

This got me thinking about the pending revolution in manufacturing and the preparedness [or not] of our Education and Industry sectors.

Concepts of school or home-based manufacturing seem fanciful, but for those of us that have witnessed the changes in the printing industry, it is not such a big leap to see what is coming.

In March of this year, The Atlantic magazine did a cute piece using the resources of the Prelinger Archive, entitled: Why Typesetting Is the Career of the Future (or Was—in the 1940s).

Schools, universities and their IT departments were some of the earliest adopters of “new” dot-matrix and “desktop” printing technologies. We saw a profound change in an established “heavy” industry over just two decades, and we are still witnessing the fallout from those changes in the news and media fields today.

I have no doubt we will see a similar adoption and change in the coming decade, although this time, the change will be across the entire PROCESS of manufacturing.

Our educators, schools and universities are more important than ever before.

Consider the recent news.

In February of this year, an 83 year old woman had her lower jaw replaced, using a jaw that the surgeon PRINTED in a 3D printer.

As recently as last month, GE Aviation, part of the world’s biggest manufacturing group, bought a privately owned company called Morris Technologies. Morris Technologies is expert in 3D printing equipment and will be printing parts for jet engines. [The Economist]

A new start-up company, FormLabs, has even announced a high quality DESKTOP 3D printer in development.

It has been quite routine for about a decade for prototyping pieces in 3D printers. Architects, Engineers, Medical researchers, Physicists, Chemists and many others are all familiar with this field.

This is what 3D printing looks like:

Conceptually, 3D manufacturing becomes an additive more than subtractive process, thus less raw materials, [lower carbon footprint] and the benefit of unitization [less parts] is realised [because each item can be altered all within software, there is no re-tooling, or in many cases, any tooling [beyond the 3D printer and operator]. This fundamentally changes the nature of the enterprise, at every level, from supply, logistics, quality control, marketing… You name it, it changes.

The competitive advantage becomes almost solely the skill of the user; their ability to respond to market need and their ability to protect their intellectual property.

When one combines this with a highly trained and skilled workforce that has access to computing and bandwidth resources, you create the circumstances for genuine innovation.

Consider for a moment the major inputs required for an economy based on virtualised manufacturing.

The education, skills and collaborative abilities of the new manufacturers will be paramount. Their access to bandwidth will be central to their viability. Their relationships with research institutions will be critical. These manufacturers will not require some/many of the industrial-age inputs that have produced such carbon-intensive enterprises that now threaten the planet.  This is one of the few times when the use of the word “revolution” could be genuinely justified and not considered hyperbole.

Innovation clusters and the ability to network strategically will be the norm.

In last months Technology Spectator, Thomas Birtchnell and John Urry envisioned four ways that 3D printing could change the world. They posited four alternate futures:

  1. Home Factories – Where everyone has a 3D Printer.. They print all the “STUFF” they want. They buy designs online, trade in designs, even make their own designs. “Shops” with “stuff” disappear. Amazon has nothing to deliver.. This might seem fanciful, however, we all know how ridiculous a printer in every home seemed in 1981?? I knew lots of people that worked in typing pools?
  2. Print Shops –  Manufacturing “returns” to places such as the UK, USA or Australia. Efficiency gains and new business models create a renaissance.  Again, this might seem impossible, given the “religion of the outsourced”, but consider an announcement from Time Cook, CEO of Apple this week..
  3. Fab labs – Communities of interest, clusters of innovation, local or regional manufacturing hubs, hinged on open-source technology and skills. The high-tech “farmers markets” of the next decade.
  4. A 3D Bubble – The 3D industry collapses, and remains a niche, specialist endeavour with little or no take-up. [Given integration of policy by governments, this might be more likely than not??]

I would suggest that any combination of the first three “futures” suggested by Birtchnell and Urry are desirable.

Australia seems particularly well placed to take advantage of the benefits in such changes to the manufacturing process if it is able to harmonise its key strategic public policy platforms in education, IT infrastructure, manufacturing and climate.

I think a 3D printer in a classroom just might cool the the planet!



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