The Future of Manufacturing

At some point most things we consume must be manufactured. From electronics to the shoes we wear, the way we create and consume the everyday things in our lives is about to radically change.

Some of the most important changes are occurring in the areas of manufacturing with a variety of innovative people and companies deploying increasingly sophisticated approaches to give them a strategic advantage. The results could very well usher in a new hyper-customized manufacturing age — an age marked by the emergence of networked manufacturers that use 3D printing, big data, and advanced intelligence to respond quickly and decisively to ever-changing customer demands.

The Early Years

In 1913, Henry Ford’s entire automobile factory began building its vehicles using a continuously moving assembly line. This revolutionary step changed the manufacturing game at the time, cutting the production time for the Model T down from over 12 hours to fewer than 90 minutes from start to finish, by reducing the money, time and manpower needed to build cars. As he refined the assembly line over the years, Ford was able to drop the price of the Model T from $850 to less than $300 (adjusted for inflation, dropping from $20,000 to $7000 in 2014 dollars). For the first time in history, quality vehicles were affordable to the masses. By 1927, Ford built a Model T every 24 seconds. Today Ford produces 6 million vehicles a year – approximately 16 vehicles every 60 seconds around the world.

Today, Ford is expanding its capabilities in 3D printing, which creates production-representative 3D parts layer by layer for testable prototypes. With 3D printing, Ford can create multiple versions of one part at a time and deliver prototype parts to engineers for testing in days rather than months.

“Technologies such as 3D printing, robotics and virtual manufacturing may live in research but have real-world applications for tomorrow and beyond,” said Paul Mascarenas, chief technical officer and vice president, Ford Research and Innovation. “We use Henry Ford’s spirit of innovation as a benchmark for bringing new technologies into the manufacturing process.”

Today

As new smarter, faster and more efficient technology is applied to the traditional manufacturing sector, improved efficiencies are poised to re-image what it means to create anything and everything around us enabling highly personalized experiences. Things that were once mass-produced are now instantly customizable to your specific tastes. How, where, and when things are manufactured is shifting. At the heart of this shift is 3D printing, which for the first time, is accessible to average consumers, whether by owning a printer or using a 3D printing service.

One such 3D printing service is a Dutch founded, New York based 3D printing marketplace called Shapeways. Users design and upload 3D printable files, and Shapeways prints the objects for them or others. Recently, Finnish coffee giant Paulig partnered with Shapeways to allow Finnish customers to use 3D printing to design customized coffee containers. Paulig’s new website allows customers to vote for the most impressive coffee box designs. The company will reward the best 25 designs with free 3D printing. By giving anyone the ability to quickly and affordably turn ideas from digital designs into real products, Shapeways is fundamentally changing how products are made and by whom.

The opportunities are endless; from homes to cars to fashion, manufacturing is undergoing a transformation not seen since the dawn of the industrial revolution. A recent event at Manhattan’s Ace Hotel, burlesque “muse and model” Dita Von Teese donned a specially printed nylon mesh dress for a private runway event. Her Fibbonaci-inspired gown was designed in collaboration by Michael Schmidt and Francis Bitonti and printed on a 3D printer.

“The exciting thing about this for me, is what 3D printing is going to do in every industry,” says Bitonti. “In fashion terms, it would be, you’re bringing your couture logic to something that could potentially be ready to wear.”

When Von Teese wears the dress, it conforms to her body, moving and flowing with her, kind of like a Chinese finger trap, says Bitonti. “The entire dress was designed on an iPad, refined over Skype, rendered digitally by Francis and sent to Shapeways for printing, an entirely virtual endeavor,” says Schmidt.

Yet another innovation is happening in the construction industry though the use of large scale 3D printing. Minnesota-based Andrey Rudenko created a 3D-printed castle in his garden. Rudenko just finished his project after two years of tinkering with the idea of 3D printing homes, and while the castle is only a scale model, it was successfully printed out of a hardy cement material. For his next project, he plans to get started on a liveable two-story house.

“A new era of architecture is inevitable, and I’m excited to see where the next few years will lead in terms of construction and design,” Rudenko says on his website. “I have previously been sure I could print homes, but having finished the castle, I now have proof that the technology is ready.”

Rudenko built the printer himself based on RepRap designs. RepRap takes the form of a free desktop 3D printer capable of printing plastic objects. Since many parts of RepRap are made from plastic, RepRap is able to print it own parts. RepRap is among the first self-replicating machines being able to make additional kits of itself — a kit that anyone can assemble given time and materials.

According to Rudenko, the most challenging part was fixing up an extruder capable of pushing through building materials. “It’s really really difficult to extrude cement mix or concrete,” he said. “It doesn’t like to be extruded.” He spent a year designing different extruders and eventually built one that worked. He then had to find the right recipe for the cement mix. “It was not easy,” he concluded.

Over the last 20 years we have seen a major shift toward outsourcing in places like China, but thanks in part to new, highly customized 3D manufacturing, instead of outsourcing, we are beginning to return to “near-sourcing” and local production.

 If production costs with 3D printing influence an overhaul of global supply chain costs, the lower cost could make outsourcing labor to the lower cost regions unnecessary. Remote production in a lower cost market will be replaced by manufacturing facilities located on domestic soil. These facilities would be located closer to the consumer, allowing for a more flexible and responsive manufacturing process, as well as greater quality control.

With manufacturing sites located closer to the end destination, the process of distribution goods will be done with automated fleet optimization technology that saves time and energy costs, therefore optimizing the delivery of goods just in time for their on-site creation. Who knows, with the emergence of robotic technologies, the requirement for actual humans to do the labor may also go away, but that’s another story.