How open source supply chain technology collaboration can help fight climate change

In this guest post, Justin Griffith, CTO of supply chain software company StayLinked illustrates how open source technologies can be both environmentally friendly and profitable

Open source technologies are used by virtually every company on earth in one fashion or another. They have a significant impact on the UK economy – adding £43.15 billion each year to the UK’s gross domestic product (GDP) – and brought an estimated £46.5 billon of “potential value” to UK businesses in 2020, according to research by non-profit Open:UK.

The benefits of using open source are known, but there is a huge difference between using versus making components of your business available as open source for the greater good. We’ve seen this happen at different levels in the supply chain, but there are prominent examples where the effects on the global marketplace have been profound.

One example we’re all likely familiar with is the American electric car manufacturer, Tesla. In mid-2014, the company’s stock price hovered around $50 per share. Tesla had already disrupted the industry by committing to a supply chain model that was revolutionary for automakers, eschewing the traditional model of franchised dealerships and showrooms around the country, each with a significant carbon footprint. Instead, Tesla would make their cars to order and deliver directly to the consumer.

Then, on 12 June 2014, in a blog post on the Tesla site, company founder and CEO Elon Musk, announced that it was no longer enforcing its technology patents and declared “that Tesla, other companies making electric cars, and the world would all benefit from a common, rapidly-evolving technology platform.”

This ostensibly altruistic position was a bold move to propel the electric vehicle (EV) market forward at a greater speed than it had been moving up to that point. In 2014, for every 2000 cars sold, just one was an EV. As of today, every major automobile manufacturer offers EV models and now one vehicle in every 10 sold is electric. The environmental impact of that decision was not insignificant. Nearly a quarter of a million electric vehicles were sold in the US in Q1 of 2022 alone. It’s worth mentioning that Tesla is now the world’s most valuable automaker by market capitalisation, dwarfing all competitors.

In warehousing and distribution, ‘getting boxes out the door’ and doing it as efficiently as possible to optimize productivity is a top priority. As automation, robotics, augmented heads-up displays and other Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) peripherals become the norm, the need for sharing data across platforms to maximise efficiency becomes increasingly important – not just for the company’s bottom line, but for the consumer’s wallet.

When an open source technology becomes a de facto standard, the market moves at greater speed and efficiency, which we’ve seen in the internet age with open source web servers and databases.

For the supply chain, transportation is an obvious place to start when it comes to open source technologies and environmental impact. Trucking becomes more cost-effective when it can rely on open navigation data to execute the most efficient route, for example. Climate change issues continue to put pressure on industry to change, not only for the bottom line as regulations become tighter, but for humanity in what could ultimately become an existential crisis. We don’t have to look far to see how open source can help mitigate the effects of global threats.

A global health crisis and open source

In early 2020, it became clear that a global health crisis was developing. Almost immediately, healthcare professionals around the world were thrust onto frontlines to combat COVID-19. As the weeks wore on, more and more people were becoming infected with the virus, workforces were compromised, and supply chains came to a virtual standstill with only ‘essential workers’ allowed to return to work. Life as we knew it had changed overnight.

We saw what happened next: businesses shuttered, events cancelled, hospitals overwhelmed, and the only people outside were the masked queues of shoppers spaced two meters apart.  Everything was suddenly in short supply, from food to paper goods. One of the most critical pieces of medical equipment during this time were the plastic face protectors worn by medical professionals. Like everything else these too were in short supply. How could an item so critical to the safety of frontline medical staff be manufactured by a crippled workforce and delivered by a compromised supply chain?

In Southern California, where our company is headquartered, I was introduced to a group of open source 3D printer enthusiasts who were promoting a unique idea: what if everyone at home using open source blueprints for face shields became the manufacturers and suppliers of the face shields themselves, safely delivering these items locally as soon as they were printed?

The 3D printers could manufacture the equipment with great speed and little waste. There would be no trucking, shipping, and no giant container ships traveling across oceans to deliver goods. Users could print the face shield in their homes and walk, bike, or drive locally and deliver the equipment directly to the ‘consumer’, eliminating the traditional supply chain entirely.

In March 2021, the US Food and Drug Administration released a report on this additive manufacturing approach and concluded that the “response succeeded in producing and delivering more than 38 million face shields and face shield parts, over 12 million COVID-19 diagnostic nasal swabs, over two million ear savers, and hundreds of thousands of mask components and ventilator parts. The collaboration of these non-traditional producers (NTPs) around the country enabled hospitals to continue testing for COVID-19 and maintain operations.” This effort, the report continued, highlighted the “challenges and opportunities for improvement” that would be lessons for optimizing additive manufacturing responses to global challenges going forward.

The parallels between the pandemic and climate change can’t be ignored. This is an example of a committed open source community locking arms and, regardless of corporate interest, making a huge impact on a dire situation. Perhaps we can view climate change similarly: as an immediate life or death situation, not just for our businesses and our way of life, but for our existence? What, then, might we accomplish?