The traditional principles of mass production today are being challenged by concepts of radical customization and highly personalized goods. As a growing number of do-it-yourself inventors and small-scale industrialists find creative ways to modify, reconfigure and fabricate products from the ground up, the manufacturing industry must adapt to this new future.
Traditional models for manufacturing are rapidly evolving, as increasing demand for customized, individually-oriented products and the desire for "personal fabrication" capabilities are driving a revolution in do-it-yourself production. Coupled with the latest advances in 3-D printing and digital fabrication, which are bringing sophisticated technologies into the home, the world may soon be entering a new era of DIY manufacturing.
"The technologies could, in fact, bring about an Industrial Revolution in reverse," according to the Institute for the Future. "In this scenario, rapid fabrication (or molecular manufacturing) will turn every home into a personal, flexible factory. Companies and users will sell or share designs that can be manufactured at the point of use: instead of container ships carrying processed goods, the Internet will circulate blueprints and CAD files."
A report last May from Wohlers Associates found that the additive manufacturing and 3-D printing industry reached a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 24.1 percent in 2010, following a 9.7 percent decline in 2009. The CAGR for the 23-year history of the industry as a whole averaged 26.2 percent. The rapid product development consulting firm also forecasts that the industry will grow to $3.1 billion by 2016 and $5.2 billion by 2020.
Much of the growth in at-home manufacturing is being driven by rapid advancement of the technology itself. The majority of 3-D printers work by depositing successive layers of different materials to form a real-world object. These systems have been around for almost two decades, but MIT's Technology Review recently reported on the "growing interest" among manufacturers in 3-D printing.
The technology has grown beyond the domain of hobbyists and do-it-yourself enthusiasts and its applications are now garnering commercial interest. For example, last summer General Electric announced it would "intensify focus" on additive manufacturing to develop a variety of products, from aircraft engine components to parts for ultrasound machines. The company has added a new laboratory to its GE Global Research Division that will be solely devoted to additive manufacturing.
Major manufacturers aren't the only ones taking advantage of 3-D printing and additive manufacturing. The process of highly customizable production is creating a fundamental shift in innovation and design, opening up new channels for smaller companies to diversify their offerings.
"Perhaps traditional manufacturers should also consider mixing mass production with individual production," Product Lifecycle Stories advises. "Listening to customers and allowing them to make improvements and customizations to products may seem overwhelming and unwieldy for some, but digital fabrication tools make it much easier to swap in new features, change the production line or restart production of old products if demand resurfaces."
Product development can be considerably more fluid and flexible when incorporating these principles. Instead of designing and manufacturing products that are separately launched, companies can rely on a continuous stream of collective information about product adaptability, use and appeal to better meet customer needs. This versatile approach can also have distinct economic benefits.
"The printing of parts and products has the potential to transform manufacturing because it lowers the costs and risks. No longer does a producer have to make thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of items to recover his fixed costs," the Economist explains. "In a world where economies of scale do not matter anymore, mass-manufacturing identical items may not be necessary or appropriate, especially as 3-D printing allows for a great deal of customization."
Of course, any new business model based on an emerging technology will also open up a wide range of challenges and new problems to confront. When the barriers collapse between conventional mass production and systems that enable more individualized, customizable and smaller-run fabrication, legal issues and questions regarding business standards will likely arise.
"Disruption has its downsides. A diversified supply chain, more widespread manufacturing literacy, and changing intellectual property practices will inevitably bring new forms of abuse and mishap," strategy+business explains. "Regulations and conventional law enforcement might not be agile or thorough enough to keep up. Manufacturing as an industry will need to promote new best practices and professional norms - in collaboration with a more engaged customer base and a wider range of manufacturing, distribution and reclamation partners."
The technologies involved in 3-D printing, digital fabrication and additive manufacturing are becoming increasingly sophisticated. As desktop manufacturing units become more compact, efficient and inexpensive, we can expect to see them appearing in more homes, workshops, small businesses and manufacturing facilities. The proliferation of these systems will not only lead to newer, innovative products, but also more creative ways of shaping them to fit customer demand.
"[T]he next level will be things that are exclusively producible through new technology," Peter Weijmarshausen, founder of 3-D printing service Shapeways.com, told Forbes. "With 3-D printing you can get feedback and improve design after producing just one object. Your minimum run is one. So products can evolve much quicker. Mix this with the opening up of design - what open-source did for software, 3-D printing can do for product design. I don't know what we're going to create, but it will be amazing."