Go to any logistics company’s website, and they will be more than proud to tell you just how far your consumer goods travel (thanks to them) from factory to storefront before ending up in your hands. And to a certain extent it really is truly amazing how supply chains have fueled the rise of modern society.
However, all good things come to an end, and sometimes, that “end” is the beginning of something much better. And the end of modern consumer supply chains is just such a case.
Think about how it is now…
Your shoes were likely made with raw material sourced from socially and economically precarious monoculture rubber farms in Southeast Asia, shipped to a sweatshop somewhere else in Asia, where workers toiled under conditions you likely would find unacceptable, before being loaded onto a truck or train and sent to a port.
From there, thousands of tons of fuel will be burned to ship it across the sea to reach the shores of your country, where another truck, burning yet more fuel, brings it to distribution centers, to be brought by yet more trucks to your local retail store.
You get into your car, burning more fuel still to reach that store, enjoying the controlled climate and well-lit aisles while you shop (consuming yet more energy) before buying the shoes and finally bringing them home with you.
For a society becoming ever more conscious about energy efficiency and “carbon emissions,” our shopping experience seems like one of the first things that should be looked at and changed if possible.
Now, imagine a product that you need or want and instead of hopping in a car and going to a store to get it, you could get it either on your desktop or locally around your block from someone else’s desktop.
The “shopping experience” need not be diminished (if you don’t want to) with malls and markets simply sourcing their products locally instead of globally. For those who want to forego the shopping experience, it would likely be possible to buy directly from the producer.
This is the future of “consumerism.”
Personal manufacturing is gaining grounds in impressive ways. And while it hasn’t broken the chains of consumerism quite yet, there is a steady and growing number of examples that prove it is not only possible, but preferable.
3D printing, for example, is becoming so prolific that you are likely to already have a local makerspace equipped with them, local companies providing 3D printing services, and even locally brewed opensource 3D printers you can buy yourself for an affordable price with a variety of higher-end models available online.
3D printing lets you print out for yourself virtually any plastic item you might find at your local dollar store (or 100 yen/60 baht shop). It also lets you print out cases and components for larger and more complex items. You can print out spare parts for your existing appliances, modifications for them, or components to build an entirely new system.
Thailand-based DIYbio lab F.Lab has begun creating its own line of opensource 3D printed lab equipment. So far the collection is limited to a laboratory magnetic stirrer, a mini-centrifuge, and some tube racks. If you wanted these within a traditional consumerist economy, you would order some from F.Lab, and they would ship it to you wherever on Earth you happened to live.
This magnetic stirrer was printed out in West Virginia, virtually the other side of the planet from Thailand where it was originally designed and developed. It was “shipped” to the US digitally, for free, without a drop of diesel fuel spent in the process.
However, F.Lab has put all of its designs online for free, and users can download the files and print them out wherever on Earth they happen to be. F.Lab’s magnetic stirrer, for example, has already been built by a user in West Virginia, virtually on the other side of the planet.
No tons of fuel for ships, no trucks, no store lights and air conditioning running for hours a day for the user to obtain their new magnetic stirrer, just a few clicks of their mouse, a few hours to 3D print the parts, and another hour or so to assemble the equipment.
But how does F.Lab profit? F.Lab’s strategy, like many other opensource enterprises, including some very old and successful ones like Linux, profits from providing a community platform, services, and training.
Thingiverse, an online 3D model library where you can find F.Lab’s equipment, has value as well. For a growing community who all personally possess the means of manufacturing, the only missing ingredient are things to make. By giving and taking from this online 3D model library, each user is gaining something of value, even without the direct exchange of money. Think of it as massive, high-tech, 3D printing bartering.
The next step…
IT has already made the concept of shipping digital media as physical CDs or DVDs more or less obsolete, and 3D printing is beginning to do the same for plastic goods. However there is a lot of room for much more. 3D printing alone is starting to move into other materials, including metal, glass, and even concrete. Computer-controlled mills which operate much like 3D printers, but cut material away rather than add it layer-by-layer, have yet to drop in price and accessibility as 3D printers have, but when they do, it will have a similar impact on consumerism.
3D libraries like Thingiverse do already contain files used for laser cutters and mills, just not as many files as for 3D printed objects.
Then there’s networks like Mayku. The people behind Mayku seem to understand the shift that’s taking place perfectly, and have decided to work on expanding just how much you can actually “make” on your desktop locally.
Of course, as this shift takes place, you will have people that point out, “but your input materials are still imported,” and yes that is still true. However, people are also working on that aspect as well. We have already covered the Perpetual Plastic Project, and the localizing of plastic recycling so that once you source your plastic, you can continue using and reusing it perpetually.
Growing and/or sourcing material locally, will gain traction as personal manufacturing catches on, and the ethos alone of doing everything locally spurs the more adventurous among us to take up the challenge of achieving 100% localization.
And what about sweatshops and boat captains and truck drivers?
They all live in communities that need to buy things too. They would have local “maker markets” to not only buy from, but to sell at. This is why education, and in particular, design literacy will become as important tomorrow as computer literacy is today.
We’ve heard of the cliche, “the future is what we make of it.” With 3D printing and other forms of personal manufacturing, that is becoming quite literally the truth day by day. If you feel like it’s time to change the consumerist paradigm, the maker movement is probably where you belong, building an alternative that satisfies you personally, and benefits your community and the world.