In conjunction with the Boston Marathon and Patriot's Day, Massachusetts-based New Balance released 44 pairs of the world's first running shoes with 3D printed mid-soles for sale. For Owner and Chairman, Jim Davis, this was personal. He bought the company 44 years ago on Patriot's Day. New Balance joins many other companies, with one foot in the past and one foot in a very innovative and tech-based future. Interestingly enough, this shift from goods manufacturer to technology business is going to do more than make these companies competitive and sustainable in the market. In the near future, 3D printing might just help these companies save the planet too. Here's how.

Zero Inventory Model

Because 3D printing is manufacturing on-demand, the inventory implications alone are worth exploration by every type of business. 3D printing can yield immediate bottom-line savings on reduction of carrying costs of inventory that also offset all the capital-intensive risks of manufacturing tooling, transportation, warehouse space and stock inventory in products. Estimated increases in research, design and engineering costs will only take back a fraction of that savings. Product-based companies utilizing 3D printing can be more innovative, market test more products and increase their profitability sustainably.

Lower Transportation Costs & Carbon Footprint

Obviously local manufacturing is the ideal way to reduce a product or company's carbon footprint. But lower emissions from less transportation is only the tip of the iceberg, the transportation cost savings can be tremendous. Companies like Walmart have entire departments devoted to reducing the product weight or package size by tiny amounts because they know it adds up to tremendous profit returns. No matter how big or small your business, understanding the impact transportation and landing costs have can be the most sustainable path to profitability.

Keeping it USA Made with 3D Printing

With a strong maker-based tradition, 100-year old New Balance has had continual commitment to USA made products. They make or assemble approximately 4 million pairs per year domestically and label any of their products with 70% or more US content or assembly as Made in the USA.  With wage increases around the world, manufacturing with 3D printing makes keeping it local possible and cost competitive once inventory and transportation costs are factored.

More Freelance Workers

Switching your business model to a design-based one from a manufacturing or inventory intensive one means accessing more skills-based workers, ideally freelancers. While that may seem counter-intuitive because the wages paid out will be higher, utilizing freelancers or work-at-home employees might make the start-up phase of your business more financially and environmentally viable. In the early phases of a business, being able to grow a company initially without a large work force (or a large office) gives you time to test out the business model and market viability. Work-at-home freelancers mean less carbon-emitting commuting and less energy usage from a large office space.

Low Waste & Energy Usage

Even if you ended up with a production farm of 3D printers like Montclair University's  Mix Lab of Makerbot 3D Printers, the energy usage compared to traditional production equipment is a fraction of the cost. Plus 3D printing is an additive process building up a part by only putting material where you need it. While it isn't zero waste, compared to other traditional production methods, the waste is minimal. Lowering both energy usage and waste saves money and the planet.

Not every company can afford to sell a $400 3D printed shoe, but for certain types of businesses and product lines, 3d printing might put the finish line for financial and environmental sustainability within sight.

Published on: Apr 22, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.