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The Future Of 3D Printing And Manufacturing

Jan 15 2014, 3:21pm CST | by

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The Future Of 3D Printing And Manufacturing

3D printers are extensively used in manufacturing. However, so far, their use has been limited and restricted to specific processes. What will a future 3D printing manufacturing ecosystem look like?

In an interesting pos t on the HBR blog network, Ed Bernstein and Ted Farrington from the Industrial Research Institute attempted to predict that future and its effect on the market. Based on their research, the authors forecast that the combination of 3D printing with manufacturing may result in two manufacturing models: the low-endBuyer Beware” model, where manufacturing organizations focus on rapid iteration at localized manufacturing hubs, and the high-end “R&D” model, where research organizations provide product ideas and social capital to small businesses and local manufacturers.

By themselves, these models are not new nor are they radical reinventions of existing manufacturing processes. However, 3D printers and e-commerce enable a complexity in scale and product differentiation that was not possible earlier.

The Buyer Beware Model: Decentralized Manufacturing Hubs

The underlying idea behind the “buyer beware” model is that of a decentralized network of local hubs. These hubs, which I assume would consist of banks of 3D printers to manufacture a prototype stream, would cater to specific geographies. Think of a local manufacturing hub for your Nike shoes or Jensport backpacks. This will enable manufacturing organizations to rapidly test and craft prototypes based on consumer feedback.

As I mentioned earlier, the process is not new.

Consumer research groups already conduct focus groups for products. However, the scale and rapidity of these focus groups will increase with the introduction of 3D printers. The other thing that interested me about the idea of decentralized manufacturing hubs is the level of customization possible through 3D printing. Currently, product portfolios for major companies rely on a centralized manufacturing hub that churns out similar products for large geographies (such as countries). The decentralized manufacturing hub model, however, enables custom blueprints for the same product at a much more granular level. For example, consider the customization of cars to suit weather conditions for geographies as diverse as California and Illinois.

The authors assert that the new process will encourage “natural selection” but do not provide proof to back it up. I think “natural selection” of products is a bit of a stretch because marketing muscle (whether for small businesses or large organizations) is an important factor in determining our decisions regarding products. In addition, setting up banks of 3D printers will take a combination of expertise and resources (financial and human). Large, established organizations hold an upper hand in both.

Research & Development And Small Businesses

The other model envisions a manufacturing ecosystem, where research and development organizations tackle big problems such as climate change and poverty. They provide ideas or results of their research to small businesses and local manufacturers, who will make these products using their 3D printers. According to the authors of the research, this collaboration will provide social capital to small businesses and local manufacturers.

Unfortunately, this idea flies in the face of the buyer beware model, where product prototypes are changed based on consumer feedback. Also, the R&D model relies on independent and inexpensive research production processes that are accessible to small businesses. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.

Bernstein and Farrington further claim that social-value metrics will displace product cost and effectiveness as arbiters in consumer buying decisions. That analysis, however, assumes an ideal marketplace where all businesses, whether big or small, have unfettered access to good ideas and equal production capabilities.

The authors have not made clear whether they are referring to industrial printers, which are expensive and require technical resources for operations, or consumer 3D printers, which are comparatively cheaper and less technical. For example, consider that Voxeljet, a Germany-based 3D printer manufacturer, makes expensive sand printing 3D printers with large build areas, especially for the automobile industry. It is hard to imagine small businesses or local manufacturers competing with Mercedes or Ford at an even keel. The same holds true for other industries, such as consumer products or engineering.

Source: Forbes

 

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