Micro-Manufacturing: A Path Toward Sustainability

The basic premise of micro-manufacturing is simple. Make products as close as possible to the customer using a micro-scale manufacturing process. How small is micro? Well, it depends.

It can just be smaller. Take Relocalize, for example. We build micro-manufacturing platforms designed to locally supply 5-100 stores with packaged ice. There’s also Cubic Farms, which produces shipping container sized food production systems. It can also be truly micro, in the sense of the metric unit (µ) denoting a scale factor of one millionth like a home 3D printer. Regardless of the scale, the idea is that re-localizing production is more sustainable and reduces supply chain risk.

Re-localizing production has the potential to drastically improve the sustainability of manufacturing, while shortening and strengthening supply chains.

Micro-Manufacturing Early Days

3d printer and objects

Commercial-scale products are already in production using additive manufacturing. For example, you can buy custom fitted insoles made by a technology that captures the unique shape of your foot, creates a digital design and then makes the insole by building it up with a 3D printer (www.fitmyfoot.com). BMW is using additive metal manufacturing for car parts in its i8 Roadster. Additive manufacturing is even being used in hospitals. The products made by these printers can be made locally, and in some cases, on demand. And they obviate the need for long-distance shipping and transportation.

What’s the impact on agriculture & retail grocery?

Micro-manufacturing is not limited just to additive printing. Technologies, such as the previously mentioned container farms, are already starting to make an impact on agriculture.

These transportable growing systems are compact and relatively inexpensive to install, when compared to greenhouses and other vertical-farming systems. They make it possible to bring production to distribution centers (DCs), fulfillment centers and even stores around the world. For example, Berlin-based Infarm makes micro-production growing systems that are currently deployed at more than 500 stores and DCs. Cubic Farms expects to produce more than 40 deployable growing systems per month this year.

The Impact: Drastically Reduced Transportation

In the examples above, products are not manufactured at home, but are produced much closer to the customer, saving thousands of kilometers of shipping and trucking. Think about it. The average journey of a product produced in China to the USA is over 7,000 miles and takes up to 5 weeks, where it then travels by train, truck and last-mile delivery vehicle to the consumer. This comes at a huge environmental cost.

One study by the International Maritime Organization pegged container shipping alone as being responsible for 2.2% of global CO2 emissions. Add long-haul trucking from the ports to distribution centers, and the picture gets worse.

The Environmental Protection Agency in the USA estimates that over 6% of US greenhouse gas emissions (the largest source globally), come from medium and large transport trucks alone.

The potential benefits of micro-manufacturing are significant. By re-shoring manufacturing activity, re-localizing food supply chains, and reducing the miles-travelled by any product, it is possible to make manufacturing more sustainable and, in many cases, more affordable. Plus, micro-manufacturing means retailers never run out of stock, can offer fresher products and never have to worry about containers trapped in the Suez Canal.

These benefits are why my co-founder and I founded Relocalize. We believe in the power of distributed manufacturing to increase environmental sustainability and reduce cost, and we’re on the path to proving it.

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