FT and McKinsey Bracken Bower Prize
3D Printing Anything, Anywhere

Alysia Garmulewicz

Rhodes Scholar, Ph.D. Student, Management Research
Saïd Business School, University of Oxford

It is one thing to identify particular disruptions to the status quo, and another to articulate a systemic change worth capitalising on. In answer to this challenge, I explore how 3D printing has the potential to disrupt the centralised material economy and unlock the door to a circular economy.

To understand the value of transitioning to a circular economy, it is first useful to look at the negative underbelly of today’s manufacturing system. We live in a global economy where throughput of material is another name for GDP growth. Garbage is the number one US export.

According to recent analytics by McKinsey, there is an excess of $1 trillion in value to be made by 2025 with a shift towards recycling, reuse, and remanufacture.

Yet for many companies, being part of the circular economy is like trying to wade up the Amazon at full flood. Much of the resistance stems from the underappreciated fact that a centralised manufacturing system actively undermines the economics of a circular economy.

Collecting waste from a highly distributed global consumer base is difficult at best. To cycle it back into production in the quantities necessary to feed large centralised manufacturing industries is near impossible. The economies of scale driving material inputs mean that any waste stream has to be aggregated from multiple sources, creating issues of mixing, contamination, and loss of information. This leaves aside the issue that many materials such as thermoplastics cannot be recycled back into high quality plastic as cycling leads to irreversible change in chemical composition. Recycling in today’s economy is literally like trying to unscramble a trillion-dollar omelette.

Rephrased, two challenges for the circular economy are the mismatch between production and consumption scales, and the loss of information over the lifecycle of material goods. 3D printing provides opportunities to address both.

First, by digitising material composition and assembly at the micro scale, 3D printing can allow us to create products out of ubiquitous materials that can be endlessly cycled without loss of information. To illustrate, the natural world uses biopolymers to fabricate enormous diversity of material performance by manipulating material composition and crystalline structure at multiple length scales. According to Harvard University researchers, by controlling composition and structural architecture of materials over nano to macro scales, biopolymers like cellulose and lignins can be manipulated to exhibit an astonishing variety of high performance material properties. What if this fabrication knowledge was distributed with access to appropriate 3D printing capabilities? Local production could be fed by local materials to manufacture high performance products.

Researchers are going further to programme the very rules for materials assembly. Mimicking the structural coding of protein folding, materials scientists are programing matter to behave like Lego blocks, where assembly information is encoded in block structure. In building, Lego detects and corrects errors due to the constraints of the block’s design. Materials can be pre-programmed to assemble with the same logic. By contrast, 3D printing with today’s uniform plastics can easily accumulate errors through the build process. For example, if the print does not adhere to the build platform, the printer cannot correct it. The material does not ‘know’ how it should be fabricated.

If materials can be programmed to assemble like Lego, they can also be programmed to disassemble. With digital information for disassembly encoded in products, waste as an idea ceases to be relevant. Flows of material will be flows of data.

Surprisingly, this future is technologically within reach. Commercial micro-3D printing can fabricate at micrometer and nano length scales, printing composite cellular structures that can perform in novel ways. Autodesk, Stratasys and MIT are partnering on a project to visualise and manipulate 3D printed materials from the nano to the macro scale. The first micro-3D printer made by a team of students cost only £1,000 to build and was the same size as a milk carton.

The United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (Darpa) Open Manufacturing and Living Foundries programmes are aimed at creating flexible high performance manufacturing with metal 3D printing and on-demand production of biologically based high performance materials. Quite apparently, the US military is interested in manufacturing anything, anywhere. Second, by making small volumes of materials economically viable as a feedstock, 3D printing can harness the latent value of waste streams and free up new markets in materials cycling. Waste management is a technologically sophisticated industry. Yet many high-value materials collected go into low-quality recycling streams. Why? Scale is one important reason.

Aggregating small amounts of high-quality waste into a large amount of high-quality feedstock is costly and hard to coordinate. What if a small-scale local production facility existed that needed high-quality materials in low quantities for just in time manufacturing? This is 3D printing’s challenge and promise: A key to unlocking latent potential in the global market of materials cycling. Welcome to the 3D printed future: materials are data flows, assembled and disassembled by producers and consumers at multiple scales.

For this to be realised some technological advances are needed. The development and deployment of low-cost metal 3D printing could provide the metals recycling industry with access to a distributed manufacturing base. Connecting high-tech digital production with waste management may be organisationally challenging. It is only when we see production and consumption as an integrated system that the true market potential is revealed. We must start with a widespread recognition that a market is waiting to be built.

We can now ask the question: If we can 3D print anything, anywhere, can we source materials from anything, anywhere? If we grasp fully the opportunity that 3D printing presents, answering ‘yes’ may not only be possible, it may even be probable.


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