Local Sourcing Efforts More Wasteful than Efficient Transportation and Distribution?

Local Sourcing Efforts More Wasteful than Efficient Transportation and Distribution?

QUESTION:

Someone at one of the Roadmap meetings said local sourcing efforts like urban farming are more wasteful of resources than using efficient forms of transportation and distribution. Do you agree? And if so, does that also apply to additive (3D) manufacturing (printing components on site rather than shipping them)?

EXPERT ANSWER:

Alex Scott, Member
Supply Chain Management Ph.D. Program
Penn State University

While it is true that a technology such as 3D printing could reduce costs and carbon emissions if you only look at transportation, this tells only a very small part of the story.  First, with regards to total energy consumption, transportation in most cases is a small, sometimes trivial, component.  For instance, in a recent study that I participated in, we found that for a particular product, the total carbon component that came from transportation was less than one-tenth of one percent of total emissions.  Granted, this was for an energy intensive manufacturing process, so the results may be on the extreme end, but having looked at several other products in a similar manner, I’ve found that the transportation carbon emissions end up being only a very fine detail, certainly not the lion’s share of emissions. 

Additionally, for 3D printing, the process of making the materials requires an extra manufacturing step.  What happens is that materials producers take the traditional materials and blast them with an inert gas, making them into fine powder.  Then, some of this powder (the part that fits through a sieve for quality control purposes) is used for final consumption and some is recycled.  All of this requires significant energy and is at least part of the reason that 3D printing materials are more expensive than their traditional counterparts.

So, I tend to think that cost and carbon emissions are usually minimized by large-scale, efficient production and then optimally distributing from that efficient plant.  There are certainly exceptions and everything should be evaluated on a component-by-component basis, but that is my general viewpoint.


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