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3D Printing Could Be the Death Knell for the Manufacturing Industry

Posted By Chris Chiappinelli, November 16, 2012 at 7:14 AM, in Category: Factories of the Future

My colleague David Brousell is preparing a survey on the “Factories of the Future,” a topic of great interest among readers of Manufacturing Executive and members of its Manufacturing Leadership Council. One of the survey’s questions asks respondents to describe the production model they envision five to 10 years down the road. Maybe they expect to be running agile, modular factories that nimbly produce numerous product lines, or perhaps they will rely on small factories located close to demand centers. I added another option to the list: In-house product design, with customers printing our products at home via 3D printers.

Don’t scoff; a decade is a long time. It could happen to you.

These days, most talk of additive manufacturing and 3D printing centers on how manufacturers are using this technology in their own production processes. Are they printing small plastic parts for use in prototypes? Are they trying to scale up to production-ready 3D printing, taking advantage of new metals-handling technology?

In these early days of 3D, less attention is paid to the next stage of additive technology, a self-serve era that we ignore at our peril. The danger is that manufacturers eager to gain efficiency and reduce worker overhead will spend billions of dollars to create a super-scale 3D printing infrastructure just as average citizens begin to invest in their own, albeit less-capable, 3D printers at home.

In their recent “Top 10 Predictions for 2013” report, the prognosticators at Nucleus Research stated the case plainly, writing, “We think the ability to turn a drawing into an object will be the most important technology advance during the next 10 years.” The next statement may raise the hair on the back of a manufacturing executive’s neck: “The ability to print a replacement part for your car,” they write, “avoids inventory and shipping costs for the dealer but also customs and import duties.”

In short, we could be witnessing the early twilight of the traditional manufacturing model. An inability to appreciate and respond to similar shifts in other industries has already claimed many victims, including those in the music and publishing industries. The music industry has been decimated by the disaggregation and digitization of its product. And e-book publishers are delivering their core intellectual property (written words) without the physical packaging and transport that generations before them profited from.

In both scenarios, the new model works counter to our intuition. We might think it a good thing to strip out dozens of supply chain partners—no more plastic for CD cases, no more molders to make the cases, no more assembly operations to package the CDs, no more transportation providers to move the product, no more distributors to place them in stores. But when you strip all that away, you’re left with the very essence of the product, and music purveyors, book sellers, and manufacturers are not accustomed to valuing the essence of their product. They’re accustomed to adding up the costs associated with packaging and transporting that product. When those costs disappear, value assessment becomes a challenge. New distributors enter the mix—Apple, in the case of music, and Amazon, in the case of publishing—and begin to muscle out the content creators and shape prices. Once that happens, the content creators either shrink precipitously (à la the music labels), or brace for a battle royale with the new market heavies (à la book publishers).

Manufacturers will be the next content creators to face this shift, should at-home manufacturing become commonplace. With that threat to traditional manufacturing looming, it is important to decide where your value lies. Is it vested in a complex network of production facilities, supplier relationships, machinery, and distribution channels? Because if 3D printing comes to the home, it will make those things expensive heirlooms. Stripped of those accoutrements, manufacturers will find their true value in the R&D department, in the innovation of their product designs. And they'll need to learn how to survive being so thin.

Take a good look at the factories of the future. If you don’t begin to reassess the value you deliver, additive manufacturing may subtract more than your company can bear.

Written by Chris Chiappinelli

Chris Chiappinelli is the online research manager for Manufacturing Leadership. He covers enterprise software, sustainability, economic trends, workforce issues, and emerging technologies.


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