3D printing is beginning to do to manufacturing what the Internet has done to information-based goods and services.
As operations, product development, and distribution processes evolve under the influence of this new disruptive technology, manufacturing innovation will further expand from the chief technology officer’s purview to that of the consumer, with a massive impact on the business models of today’s manufacturers and the lives of customers.
3D printers build objects layer by layer, in a process known as fused deposition modeling. They work with a wide variety of materials: thermoplastics, ceramics, resins, glass, and powdered metals. Technically known as “additive rapid manufacturing” devices, 3D printers also use lasers or electron beams to selectively shape the source material into its final form. Because additive devices require little setup time, they make possible the production of any quantity at the same cost per unit, and also allow easy, rapid switching between products. In some cases, a 3D printer can fabricate in a single piece an object that would otherwise have to be manufactured in several parts and then assembled. And because it composes objects bit by bit, instead of carving them from larger blocks, additive manufacturing considerably reduces the waste of materials.
Prices plummet while capabilities advance
In 2001, the cheapest 3D printer was priced at $45,000. Today a professional 3D printer costs less than $10,000, and a desktop do-it-yourself kit costs less than $1,500.
Thus far, no digital fabrication device, professional or personal, can efficiently produce a complex multi-material product such as a Kindle or an iPhone. Nonetheless, even these early forms of digital fabrication will be highly disruptive to conventional manufacturing practices.
Lessons for Large Manufacturers
- Prepare now for the capabilities you’ll need when some of your products are digitally fabricated. By 2020 if not sooner, every auto dealership and home improvement retailer will have a backroom production shop printing out parts and tools as needed. Manufacturers that figure out how to make their wares out of printable composites, investing now in the requisite changes in materials, could have a considerable advantage.
- Establish a hybrid product line that mixes complementary mass-production and individual-production items. For some objects, digital fabrication will allow you to shorten product life cycles and make rapid improvements.
- Counter reverse engineering with open innovation. Digital fabrication will inevitably enable amateur enthusiasts to knock off and alter commercial products in their garages. Manufacturers now face a choice between engaging in eternal court battles with their own customers or assimilating this new culture of sharing and remixing it into their design and production processes.
- Help in the development of new and better materials for fabrication. Independent fabricators are eager for materials, and they are experimenting fervently. Forward-thinking manufacturers can form powerful partnerships by making their scrap materials available for experimentation.
What are the new possibilities?
Taken as a whole, digital fabrication creates whole new possibilities for the manufacturing sector that has been devastated by foreign outsourcing. As the economics of foreign downsourcing collapse, the potential of a distributed manufacturing ecosystem to rebuild lost capacity is significant.
The possibility to have large numbers of geographically dispersed “factories”, of having manufacturing in close proximity to local customers, of getting direct feedback from customers and making changes on the spot, of customizing products on demand, of making drastic reduction or elimination of inventory and of reducing or even eliminating transport costs, will dramatically disrupt the design, finance, and management of the supply chain.
- Transforming the supply chain: The original rationale for foreign outsourcing was cheap labor. Changes in manufacturing processes have reduced the labor content to a small proportion of the total cost of manufacture and foreign labor costs are rapidly rising. Most of the cost of those “little do-hickeys” that US manufacturers lost interest in making lies in inventory, distribution, transportation and quality control. The ability to reduce or eliminate major aspects of those costs will further undermine the economics of foreign outsourcing even these little do-hickeys.
- Taking back manufacturing capability: Just as huge sections of manufacturing were lost to Asia by a successive process of Asian firms nibbling away at capabilities, initially at the low end of manufacture, like plastic toys, and gradually working up to more complicated uses, so the return of manufacturing is unlikely to take place by spectacular high-cost politician-ribbon-cutting high-risk investments in factories at the high end, as has happened in solar energy at Solyndra. Instead, manufacturing is likely to return by working from the low end, segment by segment, rebuilding the capability and expertise to make things, and gradually moving up the chain towards the high end.
- Customizing products: The possibility of customizing products on the spot will transform the marketplace. We will no longer see the toy store or the jewelry store, or the shoe store being the last step in a 12,000 mile supply chain, with all the problems of having the right product at the right time for the particular customer. Now the physical store will be a miniature factory, where the child designs and manufactures his or her own toy on the spot exactly to taste. The same with shoes, jewelry and other basic products.
- Spare parts: There are huge costs involved in maintaining large varieties of spare parts. Why bother with all that when you can manufacture the part on the spot with a digital printer?
- Medical manufacture: It wasn’t so long ago that a dentist had to send a crown molding away to a specialized factory and the patient had to return in a couple of weeks for the finished product. Now the job is done on the spot with a 3D printer and the patient gets the job done with one visit. In future, all forms of one-off production like dental work or orthopedic implants will be done on the spot.
- Exploiting time as a competitive weapon: Just as a Kindle enables readers to buy and and read a book instantly, 3D printing will enable customers to make things instantly, which they would otherwise have to go to the store to buy. This will help put the forgotten competitive weapon – time—back on the management agenda.
- Enhancing innovation: The potential to experiment very cheaply in close proximity to customers offers huge promise for enhanced innovation. For example, Thogus Products Company is a company that was founded in 1950 and is headquartered in the heart of the “rust belt” near Cleveland, Ohio. A few years back, the CEO, Matt Hlavin, saw that the firm wouldn’t be able to sustain itself on commodity work in high volumes. As a result, he decided to get out of the commodity business and instead focus on developing innovative solutions for metal to plastic conversion, working closely with the large chemical companies, specializing in highly engineered materials, with custom solutions in small volumes. It uses rapid prototyping and tooling technologies to take the cost out of the development cycle and expedite development. Hlavin sees the firm as an incubator of manufacturing ideas. The focus is on the next greatest invention, the next greatest idea. Hlavin says, “We are creating an environment where anyone can come in and sit down with our people and together develop the concept and manufacture a part for them in a day or two for a minimal fee.”
- Rediscovering the joy of making things: Perhaps the most important aspect of the transformation will be the effect it will have on us–the social impact of digital manufacture. Over the last century, we have gotten used to having everything made for us. Even repairing a car has become so computerized that only a licensed repair shop can attempt it. As Matthew Crawford pointed out in his wonderful book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, we have become alienated from the things around us, because they were made by someone else and have become foreign to us. Where computers enslaved us, now is it possible that they might liberate us? In the same way that personal computers have turned us all into amateur computer technicians and software administrators, so digital manufacture has the possibility of turning us all into amateur engineers who rediscover the joy of making things.
Working closely with Autodesk, and 3D Systems, WB Engineering provides the best solutions for your design challenges, with an offering which includes everything from Autodesk training, to design process automation & ERP integration, to 3D Printing. Located in Miami focused on the manufacturing and industrial markets, we are an engineering services company, combining talented people and business processes to provide Digital and Rapid Prototyping solutions (products and services). All of our efforts are focused on helping companies compress time to market, and decreasing design cost to add to our customers bottom line. Our approach to Digital Prototyping and Rapid Prototyping is scalable and cost effective, which can help your organization boost design efficiency — while delivering more innovative design ideas.