Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Commoditizing the standardized, commoditizing the individually customized 14: on-site 3-D printing, and acute disaster response and its follow-up

Posted in strategy and planning, UN-GAID by Timothy Platt on July 18, 2013

This is my fourteenth installment in a series on the changing nature of production and commoditization (see Business Strategy and Operations – 2, postings 363 and loosely following for Parts 1-13.)

I have written a lot of this series in terms of the How of manufacturing and about new and emerging ways to use what are currently still more exotic raw materials in that – but that with time will become so mainstreamed that invoking a word like “exotic” will seem quaint. Then in more recent postings and particularly with Part 13: the biological and medical 3-D printer and emergent custom manufacturing capabilities, I have at least begun discussing what for now at least, are still disruptively new Wheres and Whys for manufacturing, and with that posting focusing on construction of personalized, regenerative medical replacement body parts.

I turn here to consider another dramatically disruptive new application for new and emerging manufacturing technologies that only becomes possible because of them: entirely new approaches to enabling faster and more comprehensive response, on the ground and at the site of direct impact, as a natural disaster is unfolding and for building a more comprehensive early response in its aftermath –by deploying 3-D printers pre-loaded with appropriate design templates to build from.

When a disaster is unfolding, and people start streaming into relocation and support sites, they all too often arrive essentially empty handed. They have the cloths on their backs, but rarely have a dry, clean change of clothing. They do not have eating utensils or any of the so very many tools and aides that we all tend to accumulate in our homes and use and take for granted. They do not bring blankets for warmth or for sleeping even if cots or other surfaces appropriate for that can be made available. If they take medication, it is likely they will not have that with them either, and for the elderly and for the tired, distressed and confused they might not even know precisely what they take and certainly for precise dosage. I have seen this happen, first hand from my own experience working in disaster settings.

• The traditional approach to supplying immediate needs for just-arriving disaster victims is to try to anticipate what would be needed and in the right numbers, and to pre-position those resources where and as possible so response can be faster and more effective.
• And that basic approach is still going to be crucial, as will be having systems in place for moving cached resources to where they are needed, when they are needed,
• And with those cached resources periodically replenished with newer and fresher supplies where stored, so that everything delivered to a disaster site will still be usable.
• But even with that, having generic raw materials that specific needed items could be built from, and 3-D printers available could fill in specific gaps in the material inventory available on-site.
• This becomes particularly important for managing the complexity of the inventory that would have to be maintained in storage pending possible need.
• That becomes crucial where the specific needs at a specific emergency event might be different from what was anticipated from pre-event planning. And unexpected type or severity of event might bring with it unexpected needs and call for items that could be produced on-site to fill resource gaps, but that were not stored in sufficient numbers in advance.
• That might mean making more can openers or serving spoons, blankets or sox and sandals for the bare footed in need for correcting that or any of a seemingly myriad number of types of items. And citing the examples of sox and sandals as a very simple one, the templates in these 3-D printers would allow for scalability so these items could be produced as needed in the right sizes.
• The goal here is to simplify the inventory that would need to be cached while allowing for greater flexibility in what could be offered, and very quickly at the point of need.

This, obviously, would not solve all problems and in that I find myself thinking of missing heart medications and other acute supply needs that these printers could not provide. And I find myself thinking of an event that I witnessed where busloads of very tired, hungry, cold, frightened, confused elderly suddenly arrived at a relief center I was at, during a hurricane and with only the cloths on their backs. They were evacuated late and with less planning than haste, and they came without effective regard for any next steps that would have to be taken in managing their individual care. There were no follow-up plans in place for where to bring them as they became stabilized in this first step to what needed to be a longer-term emergency response for them. Many did have asthma or diabetes, heart disease or other chronic problems or even many such problems, all requiring crucially important ongoing medications. Even with a full inventory of who needed what of this, outside more traditionally manufactured replacement medications were and would have been needed. But more generic supplies such as blankets and sox could be supplied, or produced on-site as needed and supplied that way and from 3-D printers. And that type and level of support was and is important too.

I write this posting as one more installment to this series for inclusion in my Business Strategy and Operations directory pages, but I also write this particular installment to a much less developed directory: my small collection of postings directly related to my participation as a consultant with the United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development (UN-GAID) and with issues relevant to any organization like it. And I write this from having gone through natural disasters and from planning and training, and hands-on experience helping to deal with them. My professional focus and my expertise, such as it is, is much more centered on information technology per se and on its applications than it is on manufacturing systems per se. But the primary function of organizations such as UN-GAID is to facilitate technology transfer from more developed countries and communities of countries, to less developed regions and peoples – and in ways that would create meaningful value for them. That very specifically is what this posting is about, where any peoples anywhere and in any nation can find themselves to be those people with less resources but with great and pressing needs. Disasters, natural and I have to add manmade, can develop anywhere. This posting is about developing new tool sets for rapidly, flexibly responding to that. And 3-D printer technology holds great potential there, and particularly as libraries of vetted, flexible production template files are developed and made available as open source resources.

• And with Part 13 in mind and our growing capacity to literally build template scaffoldings for growing out new fingers, ears, noses, airways, livers and more, we are just beginning to learn the range of items that could be produced on-site and immediately as needed, and even in the midst of an emerging disaster. Bandages and custom-sized and shaped splints to stabilize fractures are easy by comparison.

I am going to turn in my next series installment to consider how new manufacturing technologies such as 3-D printing will redefine technological change and also what technological obsolescence means, and particularly as it becomes possible to locally produce replacement and upgrade parts for tools and devices that would otherwise be unfixable as their parts wear out and break. It is not that obsolescence will stop, by any means but that what that word functionally means might very well begin to change – and particularly as end-users and local providers gain greater wherewithal for deciding for themselves when their technology is out of date and no longer serviceable. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Business Strategy and Operations and its Part 2 and Part 3 continuation pages, and this specific series installment and postings related to it at United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development (UN-GAID).

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