3D printing could be a more sustainable way to manufacture, but that doesn’t mean it will be

3D printing is tres cool, and promises to do to manufacturing what file-sharing did to the music industry. But is additive manufacturing a more sustainable approach to manufacturing? My Clean Break column this week explores that question…

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Tyler Hamilton

We forget sometimes how inexpensive the gadgets we use have become.

Eighteen years ago I got it into my head that I was going to start my own student magazine. I borrowed $2,000 from a friend so I could purchase a black-and-white laser printer from Hewlett-Packard.

Today, for less than $200, you can get a lighter, smaller, higher-quality colour printer that also functions as a copier, scanner and fax device.

And what can you purchase today for $2,000? On Friday, 3D Systems Inc. of Rock Hill, S.C., began shipping a 3D printing system called Cube that can be purchased for only $1,299 (U.S.), making it one of the lowest-cost printers of its kind in the world.

READ MORE: This $1,300 printer creates 3D objects

Brooklyn, N.Y.-based MakerBot Industries will already sell you its Thing-O-Matic unassembled 3D printer kit for $1,099. It sells another device, called the Replicator, fully assembled for $1,749.

For those not familiar with 3D printers, these amazing devices don’t just print words and images on paper. They magically make things — physical three-dimensional objects — layer by layer, using a growing array of heat- or light-activated materials sold in cartridges.

The objects can either be designed from scratch with software or be based on 3D scans of existing items, anything from Elvis busts and pieces of jewelry to your own head.

3D Systems’ Cube and MakerBot’s Replicator mostly make plastic toys and trinkets, but higher-end 3D printers worth tens of thousands of dollars can use more advanced materials, including a variety of hard and flexible plastics, glass, metal powders, and even edible ingredients like chocolate. The list of materials is growing rapidly.

It’s all part of an emerging and disruptive trend called additive manufacturing, which began as an inexpensive and quick way to make one-off prototypes but, as costs fall and performance improves, is now expanding into on-demand manufacturing.

RELATED: 3D printers manufacture objects in your home

“There are now hundreds and hundreds of companies in 3D printing,” said economist and author Jeremy Rifkin in a recent interview. He considers 3D printing part of an emerging Internet-empowered era of “distributed capitalism” that is going to dramatically change how the world conducts business. “You can print out an airplane wing or part of an automobile — whatever you want.”

Like that necklace your colleague in China is wearing during your Skype video session? She can scan it, email you the coding, and within the hour you can print out your own copy.

Artificial limbs and implants? Not such a crazy idea. Last year, doctors in the Netherlands famously made a new titanium jawbone implant for one woman. San Francisco-based Bespoke Innovations uses 3D printing to make exact replicas of feet, legs and other lost body parts at one-tenth the cost of traditional prosthetic manufacturing.

Rifkin emphasized that additive manufacturing is a more efficient and potentially more sustainable way of making goods.

“With traditional manufacturing there’s a lot of loss, because you take big amounts of material and you whittle them down. So you start off with lots of material and you end up wasting lots of material,” he explained.

“But with additive manufacturing the material is added layer by layer. You have no loss. You actually use one-tenth of the material.”

That’s a huge bonus in an increasingly resource-constrained world.

So if it’s so efficient and far less wasteful, can we call it “green” manufacturing? It certainly has that potential, particularly as it relates to high-end printers that make parts and products for industrial use.

No longer will companies need warehouses full of spare parts. These items can simply be scanned, coded and saved in a database. When a company or its customer needs a part — even for products that have been long discontinued — the item can be downloaded and printed out on demand.

But I can’t help thinking about the Jevons paradox as it relates to 3D printing. English economist William Stanley Jevons argued in the late 1800s that efficiencies enabled by new technologies, which make goods more accessible and cheaper to produce, are often neutralized by our tendency to consume more of these goods.

As the cost of 3D printing falls and the devices become a common feature in every home, is this going to encourage impulse buying? Will we be inclined to print out every little doodad and trinket, article of clothing, fashion accessory or toy just because we can? How much energy will this collectively consume?

Just go to Thingiverse.com and you’ll already find a database full of mostly useless objects you can download and print out on your 3D printer. Pirate Bay, the popular torrent site used to download pirated music, movies and software, announced in January it has created a new category called “physibles” dedicated to 3D printable objects.

So much for the protection of intellectual property. If it can be scanned it can be ripped off. As one Google executive once said, “Think of it as a China on your desktop.” Alternatively, Walmart in your home.

Exciting. Also scary.

In the end, one can hope that resource constraints and rising energy costs will draw out the best of additive manufacturing and discourage the kind of mindless, rampant consumerism that has made a mess of our planet.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.

The smarter the grid, the less you should notice it

The smart grid is more than just smart meters. My Clean Break column this week takes a look at how Toronto Hydro is trying to modernize its electrical distribution system with a range of smart-grid technologies that don’t get much press.

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Tyler Hamilton

Richard Ford doesn’t like the term smart grid.

“It means different things to different people,” says the manager of grid solutions at Toronto Hydro. “The term has become overused. It gets in the way.”

Many hydro customers in the city associate the term with the smart meters in their homes and the time-of-use pricing they enable. Some imagine a smart home or building equipped with intelligent appliances and lighting systems that interact with each other and can be remotely managed by software to reduce energy use.

Others think of a kind of energy Internet made up of millions of users and thousands of large and small power producers, all part of a complex web of two-way electricity flows.

The smart grid isn’t any one of those things – it’s all of them, and more. In fact, a big part of the smart grid that rarely gets discussed has to do with technologies that make our electricity system more reliable and safe. These are the behind-the-scenes technologies we don’t and aren’t meant to see. The better they work the less likely we are to notice them.

For the past three years Toronto Hydro has been giving some of these “smart” technologies a test run on the transformers and power lines that make up its electrical distribution network.

Take transformers, those large grey cans on hydro poles that convert high-voltage electricity down to the low voltage we use in our homes. The utility has roughly 60,000 of these devices spread throughout its operating territory.

“In the past we haven’t had any detailed information about how those transformers were performing – whether any were systematically overloaded or underloaded,” explains Ford, adding that even when the devices fail they don’t know about it until customers call to complain.

About 5,600 city transformers now have a kind of smart meter embedded inside, allowing the utility to know what kind of stresses are being placed on the device and to act proactively before its fails, which tends to be at the most inconvenient times – say, during a SuperBowl or hockey playoff game.

What benefit does this bring to electricity consumers? The typical transformer failure means affected customers will be without power for about 7.5 hours. On the other hand, a less inconvenient pre-planned outage aimed at upgrading the transformer before it fails only takes about 70 minutes.

This will become increasingly important as more homeowners add solar panels to their rooftops and plug in electric vehicles overnight for charging. It will give the utility better insight into the changing patterns of electricity use in our neighbourhoods, and allow it to plan accordingly.

An added bonus: smart transformers make it easier to spot grow-ops that have illegally tapped into the system.

The utility is also monitoring some of its power lines. Sensor-based devices attached to the lines can spot abnormal electrical activity and alert control-room staff so they can analyse the data. The analytic software has become so sophisticated it can detect the signatures of different events, such as an overgrown tree rubbing up against a line or a jumping squirrel.

“We keep looking for more signatures of more events,” says Ford. “We want to identify potential faults before they turn into real faults.”

If, for example, a problem is identified as tree overgrowth, a crew can be dispatched to inspect and trim branches. The utility has seven power line monitoring devices installed to date, but plans to add more as part of normal grid upgrades.

On top of power line and transformer monitoring, Toronto Hydro is test driving feeder automation technology. Feeders are higher-voltage power lines that supply electricity to a large area of homes and businesses. Sometimes an unpredictable event, such as a vehicle accident or damage from a backhoe, can cause one section of a feeder to fail.

If a feeder serves thousands of people the resulting outage would affect all of them, and it could take 10s of minutes to a couple of hours for service to be phased back in. Automation technology can isolate a fault on a feeder line and almost immediately restore service to most of the customers affected.

Feeder automation technology has been installed on 10 of the city’s worst feeders since 2010. An outage on one of those feeders in August 2011 affected 4,493 customers. Normally all of them would have a long wait for the lights to come back on, but the automation technology isolated the fault to just one customer – the other 4,492 got service automatically restored within a minute.

It’s an extreme example, says Ford, but illustrates well how the technology can improve customer service.

“We’d like to see all of these technologies more widespread,” he adds. “The benefit is that customers will be interrupted less, and hopefully never even notice when they are.”

It’s not as sexy as the image of a smart home with an electric car in the driveway, solar panels on the roof, intelligent appliances in the kitchen, and a battery pack in the basement. That “stuff” will come, says Ford, but we need to lay the foundation first.

“What we’re doing today is making better use of our existing assets, getting more out of them by making them more effective and more efficient.”

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.