Merging 3D Printing and the Circular Economy

Plan C in Belgium is launching a design challenge to further explore how 3D printing overlaps with circular economy.

A first response from Eric Hunting:

“I think the three biggest challenges at the moment for getting additive production to conform to the precepts of a circular economy are the nature of the materials, the economy of printing at large scales, and the need for alternative energy based transportation.

Materials matters in the context of sourcing sustainably and cheaply and recycling effectively at modest scale, which 3D printing materials have a big problem with right now. A promising growing effort has emerged in recycling 3D printing filament using desktop machines, but we’re still only scratching the surface. Other processes like CNC already offer sustainable materials options with the use of things like Ecoboard/Wheatboard made from agricultural waste and practical now for housing construction. I would be interested in exploring the possible additive production processes that might use materials like Zeoform, which Abhijit Anand Prabhudan recently clued me into. This could be a powerfully versatile sustainable material, if it could be unleashed from patent shackles.

One of the most important new application of 3D printing has been housing construction, but while there is much attention for this today, market forces and finance interests are likely to doom the technology to fringe application much as they have most other alternative building technology that could not somehow sneak into the house behind the sheetrock. Currently, 3D printed architecture is depending on systems of such extreme bulk, complexity, and expense that they are completely inaccessible to the communities we would hope this technology would most help. New and very different additive production technology and/or modular building techniques employing printing systems of smaller scale are needed, along with materials, to reduce system hardware scale and cost and thus realize the disruptive impact on housing we hope for it.

There is a chronic problem in the developing world with the perception of a need to ‘catch up’ with the west rather than developing appropriate local solutions. This is what drove designers like Nader Kahlili to such things as trying to sell ancient building techniques to NASA for moonbase use in order to make them seem ‘modern’ enough for the authorities of developing world countries.

Constantly overlooked in the proposition of independent production is transportation and the drag on sustainability created by relying on systems that are still fossil-fuel–and fossil-fuel industrial/political hegemony–dependent. New social production infrastructures need new transportation infrastructure too–and systems with very low operational economies of scale. I don’t think that gets explored enough. International and intercontinental transit are especially challenging given the usual gigantic operational economies of scale. What practical alternatives can be employed today? At present, most practical options are limited to the urban environment where distances are small–work bikes, small electric vehicles. These are well suited to independent production application, though they break down at the scales of prefabricated housing. And we have already seen 3D printing applied to bicycle and electric vehicles. But what of truly large systems traveling long distances? How might additive production impact that? What of the fair trade clipper/cruiser?

Ships are interesting in that, even today, they aren’t actually industrially produced in the manner we usually imagine for industrial production. They tend to be built on-demand like custom houses, with a very high degree of manual labor. The ‘working waterman’ subculture has proven the existence of a surprisingly utilitarian sailing yacht industry producing ocean-going vessels in the 40′-60′ (12-18m) range that was enabled by the technology of fiberglass composites. But this is still very much a hand-craft with a high labor overhead leading to high vehicle costs. Though accessible to many westerners, a $100,000-$300,000 sailing yacht is as bad a life-long debt commitment as houses of similar cost. What might additive production technologies bring to this table? Could 3D printed eco-ships be the next big thing after 3D printed houses? What about even more exotic transportation? How about a 3D printed airship? Rigid monocoque composite airship structures have actually been demonstrated.”

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