Why Manufacturing Will Resemble the Music Industry

A figurine is constructed in a Makerbot 3D Printer at the company's new factory in the Brooklyn, New York. Photograph by Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

Ask a large manufacturer about 3D manufacturing, and it’ll say the technique is sure to be a big thing, but for now it’s sticking with what made it large in the first place: standardization, process optimization, and mass production. Henry Ford would feel right at home.

Not for long. Three-dimensional printing is moving fast beyond its current territory—planning, prototyping, engineering, and tooling. It is already becoming familiar in custom categories, such as medical implants built on the digital blueprint of an X-ray or CAT scan. But 3D printing will do much more than expand the universe of custom-made products; it will transform and change our understanding of what a manufacturer is.

Great manufacturing companies became great through process excellence and pursuing the lowest cost, onshore or offshore, depending on the labor/capital mix. Companies such as Daimler and Roche drove out costs by scaling in a capital-intensive way, while such sectors as the textile industry in Bangladesh scaled down in a labor-intensive way.

Imagine instead a world in which anyone can make a discrete part just by putting raw materials into a 3D printer, laser cutter, CNC machine, or even an automated paper cutter. That’s a world in which only ideas command a premium.

Today product design is driven by the necessity of driving down price per unit while limiting quality as well as functional ambitions to being “good enough.” A 3D-printed object doesn’t need that motivation. The product design can be intricate and complex, and immediately responsive to innovation. Combine that with big data, and it allows a company to build what customers need before they know they need it and then bring it to market in radically short time. Shapeways, Thingverse, and Quirky are examples of service providers leveraging 3D print technology successfully in innovation, design prototyping, manufacturing, marketing, and selling.

Like the music industry, manufacturing will increasingly be about selling digital code, as Nokia recently demonstrated with the release of its 3D printing development kit for the Luma phone case. Before long, if you need a part for your fancy German car, your mechanic will buy the blueprint and “print” the part in his shop instead of shipping it from overseas. Many warehouses and service centers will disappear, not only in automotive but in virtually all industries. The 3D process saves time and shipping costs. It allows for local customization—bad news for the container business.

Right now 3D printing is more expensive than most conventional manufacturing. A car door is still cheaper to make by metal stamping. The crossover moment is coming: Xerox, for example, has realized the significant cost saving using 3D technologies for assembly tools and fixtures. Early movers in 3D, such as General Electric or BMW, are busy upgrading their operations to reflect this trend and will act as important catalysts of change. Once this tipping point happens, 3D printing will conquer one sector after another. Parts and spare parts, complex engineered components, and industries with short lifecycles, such as fashion, will all fall into line like dominoes.

Constraints such as cost, materials, quality, IP concerns, and the easy printing of weapons still need to be overcome. But these issues may be solved by clever entrepreneurs or government action.

Ultimately, the true revolution may be a social one, when decentralized communities make use of 3D and other new technologies, while many conventional players go out of business. Remember what the digitalization of photography did to Kodak?

A product like the Dreamliner will be, at the end of the day, still a handmade object that can’t be printed entirely at once. Complex and low-volume parts therein can, however—as we already observe today. The bottom segments of manufacturing—the injection molders and metal benders—will also adjust. For the middle segment—first-tier auto suppliers, say, or Asian assemblers of cell phones—the road may be rougher. For customized manufacturing and repair in such industries, 3D printing will become the predominant technology. Plus, completely new markets will emerge from 3D print service providers and new high-tech materials.

To paraphrase Albert Einstein, everything has changed but the way we think.

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