Anyone who’s seen the movie “Flash of Genius” will be familiar with the story of Robert Kearns, the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper. Kearns initially brought his concept to Ford Motor Co., which openly dismissed him, and yet by ‘coincidence’ began using the wipers on its own cars in 1969.
Big industry—and Ford is a good example—ruled the roost from the early 1900s until fairly recently. Innovation was owned by a few all-powerful Oz-like companies and mass-production was the normal. But things may be changing.
There’s been a fundamental shift in how we go about innovating, designing and manufacturing. For starters, the democratization of innovation is being realized by small companies such as Quirky.com. Quirky is a site where inventors can propose their ideas for fabrication and community members vote on whether a product should be made or not. If the product is made by Quirky, the inventor gets a cut of the profits.
But it doesn’t stop there. The development and availability of relatively low-cost digital fabrication devices like laser cutters, CNC routers and milling machines, as well as computer-controlled 3-D printers, provide small-scale manufacturers and individual inventors the ability to design, customize, manufacture and sell their own products.
According to a recent article in Strategy and Business, companies that produce digital fabrication tools report that 40 percent of their customers use digital fabrication to manufacture not just prototypes, but end products and parts.
Although digital fabrication tools have limits—good for 1,000 items or less—they can produce highly customized products quickly on demand.
And this new trend isn’t just reserved for wanna-be inventors. The medical industry, for instance, which tends to require highly customized products, is a huge buyer of 3-D-printed devices.
According to independent consulting group Wohlers, 2009 revenues from 3-D-printed medical devices was $157 million. British manufacturing expert Phil Reeves says more than 10 million 3-D-printed hearing aids are in circulation worldwide (it takes just an hour and a half to fabricate one), along with more than 500,000 3-D-printed dental implants.
For those who don’t have ready access to fabrication tools, but would like to bring their ideas to life, there are a number of companies that offer fabrication services at affordable rates. One such company is Paris-based Sculpteo. Customers of Sculpteo can upload a digital design and receive the corresponding physical object by mail a few days later.
Some companies are also connecting digital fabricators with potential customers, allowing customers to post job requests that are then bid on by individual fabricators. A customer may submit a request to a group of “makers” and have the community work together to design and build the best possible product.
This kind of crowdsourcing is common in the “maker” culture. The open-source manufacturing business model encourages inventors to publish their plans and specifications (under an open source license), which allows others to copy, adapt, and learn from the designs, always with credit and mutual access to ideas—think Creative Commons on Flickr.
If the future of manufacturing lies in diverse, widely distributed, smaller-scale manufacturing shops, how can traditional centralized manufacturers adapt?
Strategy and Business recommends that traditional large-scale manufacturers start to participate in fabrication-oriented supply-chain networks, leasing out excess capacity to smaller manufacturers or startups or using those customers to diversify their existing business.
Perhaps traditional manufacturers should also consider mixing mass production with individual production. Listening to customers and allowing them to make improvement 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.
In this new model for manufacturing product development becomes much more fluid. Rather than designing and manufacturing separately launched objects there’s a continuous flow of collective information, incorporation and adaptation up and down the product development stream.
And digital fabrication could also offer improvements in sustainability. Because this type of manufacturing is confined to smaller workshops and these shops have more flexibility on where they locate (close to the buyer) then this could make them less susceptible to national and global economic forces—think Detroit.
The ability to manufacturer on an as-needed basis could also reduce fuel consumption, pollution and surplus waste.
Finally, if we are able to customize and repurpose products to our needs, and even repair objects ourselves, this could potentially increase the products’ lifecycle.
Do you think digital fabrication will play a greater role in manufacturing over the next 10 years? Is your company already invested in digital fabrication and has it been successful?