Can digital technology help us better protect resources? The point of view of Alysia Garmulewicz

Macro view of a plastic weave - © JJ Ying

Alysia Garmulewicz, CEO of Matterscape and professor of high technology entrepreneurship, explains how digital can become an engine of the circular economy through the evolution of production processes.

Digital fabrication in a digital world: sowing the seeds for a circular economy

Digital fabrication has the potential to radically redistribute the locations and scales of production. The implications this has on resources is critical to understanding how we may harness these technologies for the benefit of transitioning to a circular economy.


                                  Alysia Garmulewicz

Digital fabrication: leveraging the circular economy

Digital fabrication is a revolution in the science and production processes. This revolution is not just about the tools–3D printers or laser cutters or CAD software. It is about what you can do with them. Digital fabrication is disrupting the very systems of production and fashioning them in its own image. Just as the internet democratised the production of digitised information goods like videos and music, digital fabrication is ushering in a world where anyone, anywhere, may have the means to participate in producing physical goods like machines, electronics, furniture and clothing.

As digital fabrication technologies enable a more distributed manufacturing landscape, we see the exponential growth of community-scale centres of production. 3D printing, laser cutting, CNC milling, molding and casting, and electronics production allow the design of high performance products in Fab Labs, makerspaces, and hackerspaces worldwide. Yet these highly distributed centres of production primarily use plastics, ceramics and metals supplied by large industrial companies through centralised production and global distribution. Small players face high barriers to market entry. Individuals do not have a chance. Digital fabrication is a 21st century revolution being grafted onto the supply chains of a 20th century industrial age.

As industrial materials production has high emissions from intensive processing and transport costs, the opportunity to meet the growing demand of an increasingly distributed manufacturing market with more localised, sustainable sources of materials holds promise for the transition to a circular economy.

Choosing sustainable materials in open source

In nature, organisms create high performance materials with simple, abundant nutrients. These include structural proteins like collagen and keratin that help build our bones and ligaments, polysaccharides like cellulose, and lignin that are basic building blocks for plants, chitin that forms insect skeletons and the shells of crustaceans, and common minerals like silica and calcite that help form tough ceramics like teeth and shells. Because life, including us, shares this set of material building blocks, it allows materials to be sourced and cycled from local habitats to the global biosphere.

This palette of nutrients is what inspired Materiom, a materials library and database for digital fabrication. Planned to launch this year, the platform will offer recipes for plastics made from algae, starch and proteins, and composites made from natural fibers, common minerals and clays. Following an open source innovation model, recipes contributed by our member community will be licensed as open source to encourage replication, improvement, and sharing.

If we are to transition to a circular economy, a new approach is needed to source and cycle resources. Digital fabrication opens the door to a nature-inspired paradigm of production. With Materiom, our goal is to provide the recipe book for a new generation of manufacturers.


Discover the point of view of Daniel Kaplan, co-founder of FING/Imaginizing the Future.

This article was published in the fifth issue of open_resource magazine: “The resource management in the digital age”.


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