Macrofacturing: Maximizing Resources Through Distributed Rapid Manufacturing Technologies

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SUMMARY: Macrofacturing directly challenges the current model of offshore manufacturing and the tremendous economic and energy waste fueled by the shipping of finished goods. By leveraging existing rapid manufacturing technology such as laser sintering, an entirely new supply chain could emerge to maximize material resources and minimize transport. This model is based on distributed Mobile Manufacturing Modules (MMM’s) that are capable of producing myriad industrial and consumer products on the order of one cubic meter in size from powdered metals, plastics and ceramics. In this way, the efficiency of bulk shipping can propagate all the way to the point of demand, whether on the factory floor or at the site of a natural disaster. In terms of cost and fuel consumption per product weight, the bulk freight industry trumps containerization by a large margin. Thus Macrofacturing simultaneously addresses the global view of supply chain networks and resource maximization while creating the actual platform for mobile production.

MMM’s are container sized micro-factories to be operated by trained technicians, with a cost on the order of $150,000 to $1 million dollars. With relatively low capital requirements, they could be successfully deployed in developing nations to supply their domestic markets, but they remain out of reach for individual consumers. Looking ahead, however, Macrofacturing sets up the framework for the oncoming ‘desktop manufacturing revolution’, in which every home will be able to print their own toys, forks, or even cell phones. While this may be a designer’s utopia, there is also great potential for rampant consumerism. A more intelligent supply chain must be devised to ensure efficient delivery of raw materials to the home that includes a program to recycle yesterday’s print jobs.

PROBLEM SPACE: Whereas laser sintering technology and materials receive ample funding and activity around the globe, deployment in mobile factories has not yet been implemented. Furthermore, the larger economic and energy model of Macrofacturing and the potential to drastically rewrite global supply chains is surprisingly untouched. To date, the project has shown several industrial and humanitarian applications that could achieve immediate economic benefit while mitigating energy resource depletion using today’s technology (disaster relief, on-site manufacturing, and aircraft maintenance supply chains). Much of this knowledge stems from the team’s extensive experience in developing the state of the art laser sintering systems and materials. With this expertise in tow, the current focus is mapping and obtaining data on existing goods, identifying the source of raw materials, the means of shipping, the amount of packaging used, etc.

Looking ahead, prize money would be used to refine the economic model for operating an MMM and compare it to current methods, revise the specification for building a prototype MMM, and to look for more funding to build it (startup capital is estimated at $600,000). There are at least two entities that have expressed interest in testing an MMM, and may even provide matching funds should it go forward. Finally, a supply chain framework for consumers to ‘print’ their own goods must be devised in order to maximize positive social, environmental and economic impact.

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COMPREHENSIVE- Macrofacturing sets forth an economically viable framework to ensure long term sustainability. The MMM requires low capital expenditure that enables poor nations to supply their domestic market with industrial goods while automation allows rich countries to recover much of their offshore production. Positive social and cultural impact occurs as communities and individuals are able to share and create objects that suit their needs.
ECOLOGICALLY RESPONSIBLE- Reducing the distance that finished goods must travel, in some cases by more than 90%, and eliminating packaging marks a significant departure from the current outsourcing model.
ANTICIPATORY- Anticipating the oncoming second industrial ‘desktop manufacturing’ revolution, the proposal is phased in two parts. Existing technologies are used in the MMM which will, in turn, provide the framework by which the supply chain for future desktop printing devices will operate.
FEASIBLE, VERIFIABLE, REPLICABLE- Existing laser sintering technology is leveraged to create a transportable unit such that a single prototype could be used to test multiple use-case scenarios before scaling up.

CONTACT: Jordan Brandt, Harvard Graduate School of Design

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