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).

Another example in terms of the potential sustainability benefits of 3-D technology can be seen in Shapeways (shapeways.com), a company that allows people to design custom products like furniture and household objects that might be hard to replace and encourages customers to save money by using less material. Companies like Patagonia already prompt their customers whether they truly need to ship their products overnight (since the mode of transportation has such a large impact on the overall sustainability of a product’s supply chain). But Shapeways takes this form of consumer engagement a step further by prompting its customers to actively think about the materials that go into the production of their products.

Bringing Scale to Hyperlocal

Since the business model of making as many products as cheaply as possible is still the dominant form (though this is rapidly changing), another innovative, sustainable feature of the additive manufacturing model is that it brings the possibility of scale to the emerging “hyperlocal” trend that can be seen from Northern California to Vermont. There are many emerging sustainable business enterprises that attempt to build on the growing consumer interest in all things local (e.g. food, energy, economic development, etc.) and additive manufacturing provides a market template, at least in theory, from which to scale a local business model to greater competitive advantage. [4]

Ultimately, the argument that the future of the US economy lies in sustainable business has been made before, and additive manufacturing cannot substitute for well-designed tax and other policy incentives for a wide assortment of clean energy and manufacturing research & development, including 3-D printing technology.  While the business case for sustainability is strong in the case of additive manufacturing, it remains to be seen whether companies like Feetz are going to transform the business and ultimately how consumers purchase, use, and dispose of shoes.

The potential is there but the story is still evolving and it may be too early to predict the outcome one way or the other. Case in point: Google announced in September 2016[5] that its Project Ara smartphone initiative, which began in 2013 with the concept of designing a phone platform that would incorporate a wide array of camera, audio and other modules as desired by users, has been suspended.

Product modularity, the flip side of consumer customization in many ways, is the key functionality that forces people to throw away perfectly sound electronic products because one small item is not working (for instance, one letter in a keyboard). The key lesson from the Google Project Ara might be that we need to better understand what consumers truly want in terms of product customization. Perhaps Feetz will be successful with 3-D printed shoes — but what about handbags?

Moreover, it is not yet clear the type and scope of market disruption “locavore production,” as Professor Gerald Davis, University of Michigan Business School, calls it, will have on existing firms and economic systems. While many industries will be unable to adapt to the changing 3-D technology-mediated business environment, some firms will find a way to adapt by creating and hosting the tools for locavore production, using their skills to create designs suited for locavore production, or hosting a marketplace for product recipes.[6]

As Cory Doctorow, author of Makers, suggested in a 2010 Wired magazine article: “The days of companies with names like ‘General Electric’ and ‘General Mills’ and ‘General Motors’ are over. The money on the table is like krill: a billion little entrepreneurial opportunities that can be discovered and exploited by smart, creative people.”[7]

[1] Gustke, C. “With Analytics and 3-D Printers, a Faster Fashion Just for You”, New York Times, September 15, 2016, p. B3.

[2] ibid

[3] “Waste and car production – Maps and Graphics at UNEP/GRID-Arendal,” Maps & Graphics, http://maps.grida.no/go/graphic/waste_and_car_production

[4]  Riley, D. and Park, J. “Manufacturing: The Key to Sustainable Business Innovation in the U.S.”, The Sustainability Review, 2012: Issue 2 http://www.thesustainabilityreview.org/manufacturing-the-key-to-sustainable-business-innovation-in-the-u-s

[5]  http://www.eweek.com/mobile/google-suspends-its-project-ara-modular-smartphone-efforts.html

[6]  Davis, G. “Buying Furniture on iTunes: Creative Destruction in a World of “Locavore” Production” Network for Business Sustainability, November 2012 http://nbs.net/buying-furniture-on-itunes-creative-destruction-in-a-world-of-locavore-production. A longer version of this analysis can be found in Davis, G. The Vanishing American Corporation: Navigating the Hazards of a New Economy, Berrett-Kohler Publishers, 2016.

[7]  Anderson, C. “In the Next Industrial Revolution, Atoms Are The New Bits”, Wired, January 25, 2010 http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/01/ff_newrevolution/all/1

 

Jacob Park is Professor of Strategy, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship and Director, Sustainable MBA Program at Green Mountain College. He is also the Kevin Ruble Fellow in Conscious Capitalism, Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations. Professor Park specializes in the teaching and research of global environment & business strategy, corporate social responsibility, business ethics, and community-based entrepreneurship & innovation. He is a member of the Renewable Energy and Adaptation to Climate Technologies investment committee of the Nairobi, Kenya-based Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund and serves on the Board of Directors and Chair, Program Committee, of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility.