To Infinity and Beyond:
3D Printing Co-ops as Game Changers
We are working feverishly on the propulsion module before the start of lunar night. Then it will be almost 15 “days” of darkness — an experience that my earthly corpus still has to adjust to fully, even after spending the last 4 months on the moon. The 3D printer in the work tent is whirring away printing out engine parts. Jen gestures on her helmet screen to buy a spare part from an aerospace parts co-op that recently housed its servers on a satellite to speed access times for lunar manufacturing. She settles for the part designs using crypto tokens that tie to a banking exchange housed in another satellite. Within seconds the co-op recognizes our printer and validates its trust score, then sends out a part design. Just like FICO scores were back in the US of A, trust scores are a fixture of life in this landscape as they allow us to print everything from nutritionally tailored hamburger patties to rapidly built housing using lunar materials — all the while assuring the makers that their intellectual property isn’t going to wind up making turbines for an adversarial org or printing more burgers than for which they were paid.
As our drone lifts off from the Rheita Valley, I see our pale blue origins rise in the distance. Seeing earthrise still forms a lump in my throat as it makes me reflect on how far we’ve come. Yet, I also wistfully can’t help but notice how much of the infrastructure that we depend on for survival in this harsh world was within our grasp almost ten years before this mission began in 2030. And, how differently things might have turned out for our planet had we begun to embrace these platforms sooner…
This reverie from the near future brings to light that when we start routinely making things in space we’ll realize that most of the enabling infrastructure could have accelerated our journey toward a more sustainable planet well before manufacturing in space becomes mainstream. These issues are becoming more urgent than ever before as we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to “build-back-better” in recovering from the pandemic.
In particular, almost all the key elements for 3D printing at scale exist already on Earth. In a previous article about achieving supply chain resilience through protected 3D printing, I shared many of these elements for building resilient, reconfigurable supply chains using a combination of blockchain and AI technologies. These elements can be used to build factories in space just as they can be used to bring massive efficiencies and increases in profitability to managing the long tail of spare parts manufacturing for the automobile, medical or aerospace industries.
In their PwC report, “The Future of Spare Parts Is 3D,” the authors Dr. Reinhard Geissbauer, Jens Wunderlin, and Dr. Jorge Lehr, made a prescient comment that:
“Companies still think too traditionally; in the future they will sell intellectual property rather than actual parts.”
They foresee that “one likely outcome will be the rise of “platforms” for the sale of 3D printing files, similar to music streaming platforms — a shift that could totally transform the spare parts business.”
I believe that these platforms will need to embody not just the key technologies that make it possible to move from a “make-to-order” paradigm to a “make-on-demand” one but the business models and the enabling human-machine infrastructure that incentivizes creators, producers, and intermediaries to collaborate toward common goals of fairness, transparency, and sustainability.
Imagine the kinds of transformations that can be unleashed if OEMs, parts distributors, financial intermediaries, policy makers, and prosumers began forming co-ops that could decentralize and democratize manufacturing.
The World Economic Forum’s (“WEF”) White Paper on “3D Printing: A Guide for Decision-Makers” [to whose development this author contributed some insights], offers an intriguing prognosis for how supply chains will be affected under 3DP-enabled decentralized manufacturing in several scenarios:
– Linear value chains may be replaced by agile networks of on-demand FabLabs; as these actions scale up, supply chains could undergo a dramatic change — there would be a much higher flow of 3DP input materials than intermediary inputs and finished goods.
– The digital flow of designs would also increase.
– Because of the efficient use of materials in 3DP due to the additive manufacturing, lower amounts of raw materials would be needed.
– The weight of finished parts would go down as hollowed designs are adopted.
– Keeping spare parts in inventory could become a thing of the past, as parts could be printed on demand
– If mass customization takes off, perhaps fueled initially by postponement strategies such as name engraving, production might move closer to consumption, and offshoring may be less of a cost advantage
– There could also be fewer returns and less material waste because of better matching of products to customer needs.
Within these contours the shape of a greener, more sustainable future for our own planet is readily apparent.
How can we muster the wherewithal to drive supply chains toward a near future that I imagined at the beginning of this article?
Co-ops offer a compelling approach to develop such investments on a time scale no different than traditional business models but through an inclusive and collaborative approach that can fundamentally alter how we get there.
In another article, I provided background on the changing nature of co-ops and the promise that they hold for transforming the pandemic response and beyond. Some would argue that co-op models are unlikely to be embraced by aerospace giants or other capital equipment providers given their profit incentives are tuned to drive short-term value. Yet, the crowning achievement of the International Space Station (“ISS”) should give us pause about what can be achieved through enlightened collaborations between corporate interests. As Ken Shields, COO of CASIS (Center for Advancement of Science in Space) points out in an ISS blog, examples of these commercial users include many of the top pharmaceutical companies in the world — Eli Lilly and Company, Merck & Co., Novartis, Sanofi Pasteur, and AstraZeneca — as well as manufacturing companies like Procter & Gamble, Hewlett Packard, Enterprise, Nalco, Champion, adidas, Milliken & Co., Delta Faucet, Cobra Puma Golf, Goodyear Tire & Rubber, Apple, and Budweiser. Other organizations such as space.coop are also emerging to participate in the rapidly evolving space-tech industry.
Peggy Whitson, a former NASA astronaut, astutely reasoned in another ISS blog that the ISS deserves consideration for the Nobel Peace Prize because it wasn’t conceived as a peace-making mission and yet has advanced the cause of our highest human motivations. Following a similar pattern, co-ops can foster new approaches for democratizing manufacturing and innovation.
Already there are models such as those being developed by Automation Alley, which is connected with a WEF Advanced Manufacturing hub that closely emulate the ethos of a co-op in action. This organization has enabled 300 contract manufacturers with 3D printers to allow them to print-on-demand much needed PPE to combat COVID-19. They are working through a blockchain and AI powered platform spec that could help make this infrastructure viable toward fostering a resilient and scalable supply chain for automobile parts.
A generalized co-op infrastructure that extends such emerging developments toward a scalable supply chain resilience paradigm would comprise the following key elements:
Co-op participants (that can include OEMs, enabling services and software providers, prosumers, financial intermediaries, regulators, and even policy makers) use this infrastructure to manage and transact key production assets. For example, with electronic or aircraft spare parts, these could include part designs along with specifications of related production process know-how — would be registered on a blockchain and be discoverable through an AI based system. Smart contracts can enforce compliance to particular intellectual property rights and trigger decentralized payments (including with tokens). Trust scoring is a key lynchpin of this overall approach as it mitigates against IP infringement and malicious behavior while rewarding high performing contributors and ensuring supply chain reconfigurability.
The overall impact of this approach is “profit with purpose” — wherein co-op participants learn from and build upon each other’s contributions while creating value for all. The resulting “circular” economy lies at the heart of a greener and more sustainable planet too.
Raj Malhotra is founder and CEO of a Boston, USA, based enterprise that provides trusted co-op infrastructure for customers and collaborators in industries and applications ranging from healthcare to AI to Space Tech. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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