Microfactories – manufacturing in a more sustainable way

Just take a short step back and think about this: in today’s society we ship physical goods around the whole world. Even products as tiny as a plastic toothpick can travel thousands of miles via ship or truck. Now, one may ask, “How is this possible?” It is basically because transport is cheap as oil and gas are cheap. Some of you may now think, “Oh come on, oil and gas are not cheap,” but in general they are still inexpensive and available. But let us take a short look into the future where oil and gas will certainly not be as inexpensive as today and more people may care as well more about their carbon footprints. In that future, shipping a 40-foot container from China to Europe will not cost 2,000 USD anymore. Imagine if it cost 20,000 USD.

This is where idea of microfactories comes in. The term was proposed by the Mechanical Engineering Laboratory (MEL) of Japan. The concept refers to a small-dimension factory that saves resources like space, energy, materials, and time. An interesting paper published by Makoto Tanaka from MEL in April, 2011 explains the concept a little bit further and in more detail (Link to the publication). It is basically a fully downsized production system which consists of five micro-machines (a milling machine, lathe, press, transfer arm, and a two-fingered microhand). Together they function as an on-site microfactory and can be seen as a foundation and step toward a new possible decentralized production system of the future.

Going back to less technical terms and more social aspects: recent years have brought us tools like the Internet which allow people to exchange information and communicate to each other in real-time on a global scale. There is a developing movement which may have originated with software but is now moving from the digital space into physical space. People have the demand and idea to share knowledge about how to build things like machines using open-source plans and technology  so everyone can start and built his own 3DPrinter or even a kit car. Just think how useful this could be in more remote places where people do not have easily access to proper supplies of spare parts or even more urgent needs like water filters. There the concept of microfactories could help.

Even just imagine a product like the Makibox (an open-source 3D printer) being used worldwide by 1,000 people who could deliver supplies for their local markets. I was inspired by conversations with Jon Buford the founder of Makibox to think more about this in details.

Actual Situation

To get into the concept, think about how a product launch−for example for a vinyl toy−is done today. A big productionhouse designs a toy; let us say in the US. It sends the files to a Chinese toy factory. They produce maybe 1.000.0000 pieces, pack them into containers, ship them all around the world, lorry them to a distribution center, bring them from this distribution center to the local store, and finally you drive there with your car and pick one up. Most of the money you pay for the toy is for licensing, marketing, transport, and logistics; a small amount of what you pay is the “real” product itself. Perhaps half of the toys are thrown away anyway because the product is old, a newer version is available, and no one wants to buy the old version what a waste of resources.

The  possible Future

So how could this look in a world with a microfactory network stretching around the globe connected via an Internet platform? I would suggest we take the same example product as before and think of a microfactory as if it were a Makibox printer. Let us say there is a small designer who has a really cool character. He could place this character onto the platform and provide the file for the microfactory network to print it via the Makibox. Once a person is interested in this product and wants to buy it, the system determines a few makibox owners close to the person who wants the product. One of those “makiers” then gets immediately access to the file for the 3D printer, or the file could be sent automatically to the chosen Node.

This microfactory could then use (for example) recycled plastic to print this toy and the owner could deliver it to the customer in person or just ship it with the local mail or courier. The whole system would produce on demand and could use recycled materials. In the best case there would also be no overproduction as production is based on demand. This whole system would bring several imaginable advantages, among them access to global markets for a person with an idea without having to maintain the cost for a whole production run or a warehousing and logistics partner as well as the aspect in terms of sustainable production.

This is a lot to think about. However, the main idea behind this idea of a manufacturing revolution is developing from centralized mass production to a globalized decentralized production system. This may help generate jobs and new ways and forms for how businesses producing and distribute physical goods.

by Juergen Hoebarth, March 2012