An Innovation Process: Sustainable 3D Printing World Tour

Text by Johann Recordon
3D printing the swissnex logo

3D printing the swissnex logo

End of January 2013. I’m reading a project proposal from Christian Haeuselmann, co-founder of swisscleantech: “If 3D printing doesn’t start using sustainable feedstock right now, we’re heading towards uncontrollable plastic waste in the next five years.” Sounds like territory for swissnex San Francisco to cover. Let’s partner up with this Haeuselmann guy!

A few days later, I meet with Lisa Constantinovici, founder of StartupNectar, and a pattern emerges. I keep hearing the words feedstock, sustainable, and biomimicry. Together, we visit TechShop and she introduces me to Andrew Rutters and Miloh Alexander from Type A Machines. These two young and dynamic entrepreneurs are presently polishing a new model of their 3D printer. It’s fresh, it’s built from the ground up, and it’s becoming affordable.

February 7, 2013. 1 Market St. at the Autodesk offices. About a hundred people are gathered for an event on biomimicry to hear about the latest in nature-inspired engineering. I talk with a few members of the audience about the project we have in the works on sustainable printing material—called feedstock—for 3D printers, and the response is even more positive than I expected. It makes sense. Biomimicry is the imitation of nature to solve problems. We want to explore how the printing process can be improved by finding a material that is bio-based and biodegradable.

Two weeks later, Chris Anderson (The Economist, WIRED, author of The Long Tail, and CEO of 3DRobotics) is at the Yerba Buena Center talking about his new book, Makers: The New Industrial Revolution. He explains that the world is about to undergo some major changes and 3D printing is part of it. swissnex San Francisco is on the right track. I’m pumped.

By the end of February, a concrete project is taking shape. A dozen speakers and panelists; three days of conferences, workshops, and meetings; 3D printers; an approved budget; and, more importantly, a clear focus: Can 3D Printing Go Green? We are truly going beyond the headline buzz around 3D printing and looking at the next big question for the next industrial revolution.

A few conference calls with Pascal Marmier, director of swissnex China, and Margrit Leuthold, director of swissnex India, gives us the last piece of the puzzle: internationality. The three-day forum will leave San Francisco in June to plant seeds in India and Shanghai before continuing its journey to Switzerland in the Fall of 2013.

Friday afternoon in the middle of April, 2013. Like most Fridays for the past weeks, I receive a call from Christian Haeuselmann. It’s our weekly sync up and, often, when the major decisions are taken. We talk about the second day of the forum—the only one that isn’t coming together. “What if we did a full-day workshop with the key partners, focusing on drawing a sustainable, five-year roadmap for the industry?” Agreed. We have two weeks. We can do it.

May 2, 2013, 7:10pm, swissnex San Francisco. We are about to kick-off the first international three-day forum on sustainable 3D printing with a discussion of ethics and sustainability! The room is packed with enthusiastic people. We have colorful 3D printed objects from Roman Jurt, biomaterials in various forms from BioApply, a Type A Machines 3D printer, and posters from Jeremy Faludi (PhD student at UC Berkeley) and Mango Materials. Throughout the evening, international, innovative speakers and panelists explore the state and potential of desktop 3D printing. Prof. Maurice Jutz is last with a call to action: new technologies need to be designed in a sustainable way from the get-go or they won’t improve anything in the long run.

The full-day workshop on May 3 draws out some interesting cultural differences: for the Swiss experts, involving the government is a no-brainer and should be done soon to steer it in the favor of ecology. For the Californian makers in the room, the market must remain open-source at all costs.

May 4 is the most interactive day, as people create in 3D on a computer and see their inventions come to life in a few layers of (biodegradable) plastic. A face-shaped cookie mold and a self-watering planter are conceptualized, drawn, and printed in about an hour. Talk about putting the power of innovation in the hands of children: the cookie mold was the original idea of a 10-year-old participant.

An innovation process

Click on image to see pictures from the event DIY Biomaterials: A Factory in Your Kitchen on Flickr

It’s June 18 and I’m in Bangalore, India, about 8,700 miles from San Francisco. I’m here to lead the 3D printing program for a new audience and a new set of speakers at Jaaga, a hacker space built from cheap metal tubes and wooden panels in the middle of the city. Young people are everywhere sipping lattes and coding on their laptops. Not so different from the Silicon Valley after all.

Together with swissnex India, we host the panel discussion between professors, an entrepreneur, and a social activist who describe the state of 3D printing in their country, from medical research to community work in remote villages. The next day we start the workshop with engineers, industrial designers, and entrepreneurs, and for the first time since starting this project, the topics of sanitation and the design paradigm come up. I’m psyched!

June 20, 2013. I’m back on a plane and heading for Shanghai, China, where we’ll hold another conference, panel discussion, and workshop at Tongji University in collaboration with swissnex San Francisco China. Attendees are mostly business and engineering students and entrepreneurs interested in home manufacturing. The tone is a lot more efficiency focused and concerned with the evolution of 3D printers and feedstock. It goes great yet again.

July 1, 2013. After six months of thinking about sustainable 3D printing and two months of talking about it around the globe, what can I tell you?

First off, despite concerns about copyright, safety, plastic waste, and the potential impact on human labor that came up almost unanimously in all three countries, I saw entrepreneurs and activists ready to take on the challenge to make something great out of this technology. Be it companies in San Francisco and Bangalore building model after model to create the perfect 3D printer, to the two young founders of Modelyst in Shanghai who have come up with a way to protect the IP of 3D designers, to speaker Amitraj Deshmukh in Bangalore who is making hacker spaces out of schools in remote villages—everywhere I went I met people who see beyond the limitations and are trying to change the world for the better with 3D printing.

3D printing speaker Amitraj Deshmukh

3D printing speaker Amitraj Deshmukh and Prateek Khare discussing the collaboration between swissnex and the local entities.

Second, the people who participated in our events around 3D printing also seemed to unanimously crave international connection and collaboration—and the swissnex network together with its partners is the ideal catalyst for making that happen. We now have Type A Machines in San Francisco talking to Cycloid System in Bangalore; BioApply in Switzerland is connected to Modelyst in Shanghai; and Modelyst is also in talks with Ponoko in San Francisco and with Amitraj Deshmukh in Bangalore.

I believe people in California sometimes forget that great ideas also come from outside. Going to India and China offered a global look at the problem of making 3D printing more sustainable—and allowed us to brainstorm creative solutions with input from numerous perspectives. It helped us all consider not only the green hackers from the Bay Area, but also the super-qualified altruists from Bangalore, the open-source perfectionists from Shanghai, and everyone else as well.

So can 3D printing really go green? I can’t make any promises but I strongly believe it will. And call me biased, but I feel like the best way to get there is by bringing people together around this topic and hashing out ideas—exactly what swissnex does best.

In the Fall, our partner swisscleantech organizes multiple events of the same type in Switzerland and Lichtenstein to keep the discussion alive and build on what we have accomplished so far. From a single idea formulated six months ago, we were able to bring people together from three continents. Using open communication channels between groups that usually work in silos, ideas are being exchanged and innovation marches on into the—hopefully sustainable—future.