The Long-Term Solution: What will have the biggest impact on logistics in the next 10 to 20 years?
According to Chris Caplice, Executive Director at the Center for Transportation & Logistics, two technologies – both being researched at MIT – will fundamentally change distribution.
3D Printing is a new form of manufacturing. It allows increasingly large components to be produced by laying down layer upon layer of the relevant raw material such as glass, plastic, ceramic or metal. In one process, metal is deposited in powdered form and fused together using a laser. Peter Schmitt, a PhD student at MIT, has successfully ‘printed a working grandfather clock.
Aerospace components, jewelry, car panels and even bicycle frames can now be ‘custom printed’ one at a time at low cost, thus eroding the hold that mass production currently has on manufacturing. And without mass production, cheap labor is no longer the decisive factor and there’s no need to have products made thousands of miles from where they are consumed. Furthermore, as the process uses computer-assisted design (CAD), it’s simple to send custom data and instructions either directly to a customer’s printer or, for complex items, to a specialist printing company located nearby.
The artificial leaf
MIT has played a more important role in the second technological advance. Scientists at the institute have recently developed a next-generation solar panel dubbed ‘the artificial leaf.’ Floating in a tank of water, it mimics the workings of a real leaf using sunlight to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The former is captured and can then be used in fuel cells to general electricity.
“In one hour, more energy from the sun strikes the Earth than all the energy consumed by humans in a year,” says MIT professor Daniel Nocera, and asks: “Why don’t we make more use of it?”
Up to 10 times more efficient at carrying out photosynthesis than a natural leaf, it’s hoped the artificial leaf will play a big part in further decentralizing our manufacturing networks and eliminating the need for shipping fuels around our plant.
“Our goal is to make each home its own power station” said Nocera.
(Source: BASF – Creating Chemistry, Issue One 2012)