If you are thinking about the relationship between technology innovation and global sustainability, what comes to mind most often are rows of solar panels in the Arizona desert or offshore wind turbines off the coast of Denmark. What you don’t typically think of are companies like Feetz (feetz.com), a Tennessee-based startup that uses 3-D printing technology to make custom-fit shoes.

The convergence of online commerce, mass customization, and 3-D printing technology (or what some people refer to as additive manufacturing) is underway, with customized shoes representing the latest model of what surely will be other customized consumer products hitting the marketplace.

While Uber and Airbnb get most of the media attention worldwide in terms of business model innovation, the importance of whether manufacturing in the US and worldwide takes a sustainable business trajectory cannot be overstated. Traditionally, manufacturing is most expensive part of the retail supply chain. Shoes, toys, and many consumer products are manufactured overseas, most notably in China, and shipped as finished products to the United States.

In the case of Feetz, the ordering is done online, where customers can download an app, take smartphone snapshots of their feet and create a 3-D model to be used as a model for their customized shoes.[1]  If companies like Feetz are “changing the ways goods are ordered, made and sold,”[2] what are the important sustainability consequences of such business models? Are they positive, negative or something else?

3-D printing or additive manufacturing technology can in theory dramatically reduce the amount of waste created in the manufacturing processes.  Like stacking bricks to build a house, additive manufacturing process creates objects in layers without the limiting constraints of molding requirements or human error in welding. The result maximizes material efficiency, ensuring that no material needlessly goes from welder’s torch to junkyard. For context, a typical car wastes about 10,000 kg of raw materials during the manufacturing process.[3]

Unlike traditional large-run manufacturing, the small scale of production typical of most 3-D printing efforts means that the cost of wasted material does not have to be ameliorated through economies of scale. Even in smaller 3-D printing projects, material use efficiency is an automatic consideration, not something to think about as an add-on consideration after the waste is produced or the environmental damage is baked into the product itself (think plastic bags).

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