Largely due to advances in 3-D printing, on-demand manufacturing is poised to kickstart the distributed fabrication industry and provide a boost to the global manufacturing market.
3-D printing has the potential to revolutionize everything from high-tech electronics to constructing prosthetic limbs. The technology is already enabling the rapid rise of on-demand manufacturing, which offers a highly customizable and versatile business model for designing, building and selling manufactured goods. According to The Economist, it’s all leading up to a “third industrial revolution.”
3-D printing, or additive manufacturing, is the process of feeding computer CAD models into a machine that resembles a document printer, which then assembles 3-D models layer by layer, following the CAD model. 3-D printers can create a wide variety of products made from a growing range of materials, such as stainless steel and polymers.
Some companies have adopted 3-D printing in an innovative way, leading the charge in “social” or “distributed” manufacturing. And this on-demand business model is spreading.
Autodesk has developed several types of software and apps that allow novice designers to create, manipulate and export 3-D CAD models. With 123D Sculpt, users can create their own CAD model, while 123D Catch allows users to import panoramic photos of an item, which the programs then translate into one cohesive 3-D model. By transferring these models to 123D Make, users can pay a fee to Autodesk to create a physical model of the object, or print and assemble the models themselves.
New Zealand company Ponoko has embraced the Internet to supply on-demand laser cutting and 3-D printing services. Designers can use Ponoko-supplied technology (available for desktops or handheld devices) to create a 3-D model. They then supply Ponoko with the model and advertise their products for sale. When a customer purchases a product, Ponoko uses their laser-cutting machines to shape the product, and then the designer ships it. The designer must pay the company a fee, but can keep the rest of the earnings.
This on-demand manufacturing model is interesting because it allows designers to sell a product with a much shorter lead time, embracing the lean principles of on-demand supply. Additionally, the designer has no up-front costs. A furniture designer profiled on Wired has only sold two of his chairs, but as the magazine points out, the money he earned after paying Ponoko’s fees is all profit.
Companies like Ponoko, i.materialise, Shapeways and Sculpteo are able to produce on-demand products and ship them around the world because they rely on networks of manufacturers. If a customer orders a piece of jewelry in Washington, a Seattle-based shop can be activated to make it.
The supply chain aspect of distributed manufacturing is an efficient, effective and cost-saving method of reducing lead times and fabricating products close to their intended destination. It is a paradigm that is slowly altering other forms of manufacturing as the technology and the dedication to green principles improve.
The “personal factory” system is widely appealing because, like social media and crowdfunding, it democratizes digital life. A designer with little training, no up-front funding and a great idea can still make his business work by using the 3-D printing services available on the Web. Manufacturers take no up-front risks either, as they only produce the items when a customer places an order.
But 3-D printing and manufacturing on-demand are still lower on the revolution curve than many would hope. The Motley Fool argues that 3-D printing is currently in a dangerous part of the “hype cycle.” Although 3-D printer developers are still battling limitations in accessibility, material and expense, investments in the technology are flooding in “like the future is already here.”
“Today, 3-D printers can only work with a few dozen materials. That number is growing exponentially, but it will still be some time before we can replicate anything we like. For now, we’re mostly limited to various forms of plastic, with a few metals thrown in,” Motley Fool notes. However, “[t]he future of 3-D printing remains bright.”