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Minimal Mass


Printing and Growing Products with Minimal Mass

Just when you thought every local print shop will go out of business (because everyone has an all-in-one printer) and when you thought there were no more local industries left to outsource, it appears that the future may well be, at least in part, local again – albeit in a whole new way.

As the need to reduce the amount of resource mass required to support our needs becomes even more apparent, it will become a major driver of product innovation, of business management, of government policy, and of “consumer” expectations.  The change will be driven by the unlikely convergence of new technologies and new economic realities.  Let me explain.

To determine the amount of mass tied up in a particular product, you need to know the mass of the product itself, but also the mass of the packaging and of the fuels that went into its manufacture and transport.  This is the embodied mass of the product.  A product’s embodied mass is much greater than the mass of the product itself.

Making this information available will cause some companies to change their manufacturing methods and even move a portion of manufacturing back to local communities, closer to buyers.  This new manufacturing won’t involve blast furnaces, injection molding, smelting, stamping or any of the processes that we normally associate with factories.  Nor will there be nearly as much pollution produced, as there will be little waste.  Due to the nature of the new technologies, economies of scale will shift from the production of products to the production of smaller-scale, modular manufacturing facilities.

Imagine local factories that are much like your local print and copy shop, but instead of printing documents they will produce the products you need, when you need them, to your exact specifications using 3D printing.  It’s the way computer circuits are manufactured now, and it will be expanded to many products we use every day.  Your shoes, your clothes, your bicycle, even building components or a replacement toilet might be made to your specifications using 3D printing.  Perhaps you’ll buy the rights to use a design that’s compatible with your local printer’s capabilities.  The design will include a 3-D image of the product down to the individual layers of molecules, though you’ll be able to work with your printer to customize it.  When you get the design right, the printer will produce the shoe, layer by layer, varying the composition of chemical components to create the characteristics you want – cushion, appearance, breathability, thickness, moisture control, color, etc.  Each shoe can be fit to account for differences in your feet.

The second manufacturing technique in your future involves growing things.  Biotech companies are already growing bones and some organs for transplant.  Designer and biologist Suzanne Lee (video) is growing bacteria-based fabric and leather substitutes  In 1970, science fiction writer Arthur C. Clark predicted growing steaks without cows.  It’s coming.  Whether it offends your sensibilities or not, the potential of producing some portion of food without land, fertilizer, soil erosion, pesticides, and massive fossil fuel subsidies has benefits.

These new manufacturing techniques have enormous potential for reducing the amount of mass required to fabricate what we need.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see Japan's economic recovery fueled by new techniques that don't rely on land or imported resources to produce food or other products.