If you are interested in the field of sustainability, you have most likely run across the work of Janine Benyus before. She is a natural science writer and author of the book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, among others. If you haven’t time to read her work, you should at the very least check out her TED talk, a succint 18 minute exposure to the connection between the processes of design and nature.
Given all that, it should come as no surprise that she is weighing in on the possibilities for making 3D printing into a clean method of manufacturing. She likens the process of building up to a product to the manner by which nature creates and asks, therefore, if there aren’t other opportunities to learn how to make additive manufacturing part of the system rather than a pollutant to it.
While many of us are so familiar with 3D printing that her assertion that we are living in a time before it becomes mainstream might seem suspect, there’s some weight behind that idea if you really think about it. People are used to the idea that it will be big, but in actuality, if you aren’t yet in on it, you’re still well in the majority. To Benyus this is important because it means there is still time to go down a different path than the purely extractive one that was followed by the products of the industrial revolution. In her recent article for FastCompany, she shared her hopes for these advanced technologies:
“We have to do better, and thankfully, we still have time. This is the moment to redesign manufacturing so that it leapfrogs the missteps of the first industrial revolution. At a minimum, the materials need to be common, safe, and recylcable from the start. Manufacturers need to be able to procure what’s known as feedstock…locally, and then download a digital build file that imparts superior performance through structure. At the end of its life, the product must be ‘unzippable’ so the feedstock can be fed to the printer for reuse. And that’s where biomimicry – the mimicking of nature’s strategies and designs – has a great deal to offer.”
By doing this, additive manufacturing would be participating in a closed system, one where the products of the system are also the ‘food’ for the system, creating a loop. The appeal of her idea is that her push to sustainability in 3D printing isn’t one cloaked in chiding, in a message of deprivation, or in a sentimental anti-technology nostalgia. The most compelling example she provides is that of the spider which builds up its web layer by layer and then consumes it to generate the protein necessary to spin the next one. Some steps have already been made in this direction with the introduction of things such as recycled filament.
She contrasts these natural filament producing systems, such as the one belonging to the spider, with the increasing number of feedstocks that are available which have also increased in toxicity and energy consumption. Benyus offers up the biologically inspired Shrilk as an example of how other materials have been created as examples that should inspire the creators of new types of 3D print materials.
The truly interesting thing to ask of the minds at work creating more filament options is: can we design a filament that doesn’t simply do no harm, but actually makes a beneficial contribution to the environment? The Ford auto manufacturing plant at Rouge River, for example, doesn’t simply step lightly, it actually improves the environment by leaving the water cleaner than it was when it entered the factory. Could we create a filament that pulled toxins out of the air rather than one that simply doesn’t add any more to it?
The key to creating truly sustainable 3D printing practices lies in recognition of the existence of deep sustainability, not just surface greenwash. In order to be better than the industrial revolution, we can’t just mitigate our impacts, we have to actively participate in nature; instead of minimizing damage, we must contribute to improvement. Sure, it’s possible to deny that anything bad could ever happen as a result of the current practices, but the costs of being wrong are extremely high. Whereas if we choose to ‘clean up’ and it turns out we didn’t need to, well, then things are still clean.
It might not be possible right now, but given the culture 3D printing which values philanthropy, crowd sourcing, and open source design, it’s not a matter of if we can create better, but simply if we will.
Do you agree with Benyus? Let us know in the Green 3D Printing forum thread on 3DPB.com.