The Future of Manufacturing?

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Technology has changed our society in may ways. Think for a moment about dark room technicians and photo film development. Just a few, short years ago this industry generated billions in revenues, employed thousands and sustained some nice-sized communities (i.e, Rochester, NY).

But who takes film to be developed these days? Anyone with a digital camera and computer can take, upload, process, customize, crop, and share photos of extraordinary quality in a matter of moments. The technology is inexpensive, easy to use, and it displaced or upturned whole industries in the process.

(BTW, anyone heard of darkroom technicians getting TARP money?)

Wired magazine recently published an article by Chris Anderson titled 'In The Next Industrial Revolution, Atoms Are The New Bits.' It's purpose is to explore emerging technologies that will move all phases of manufacturing - design, development, production, marketing and distribution - from large industrial entities into the hands of the individual. In the same ways photography and the industries that sprang up around it, Chris explains, the industrial processes and methods of 'traditional' manufacturing will also be shattered.

First and foremost, I urge everyone to read this article. Whether you feel its hype or spot-on, it is an extraordinarily lucid, inspired and well-written piece. (Check out this video for a great synopsis.)

But it also glances over some key drivers that will have to be refined for such predictions to take hold on the scale the article intimates is fast-approaching.

Like intellectual property protection, for example.

On the one hand, Chris uses the example of Bob Kearns, the inventor of intermittent wiper blades for cars who had his idea 'borrowed' by a large US automotive manufacturer, as an example of how the traditional 'invention-to-manufacture' process worked.

But then he goes on to describe Seattle-based Will Chapman and his boutique Lego manufacturing company, BrickArms as an example of the 'new' process - and why he decides to have larger lots produced in the US. Here, the weaknesses of this early-phase evolution are exposed:

"Chapman works at a different scale. He designs parts using SolidWorks 3-D software, which can create a reverse image that's used to produce a mold. He sends the file to his desktop CNC router, a Taig 2018 mill that costs less than $1,000, which grinds the mold halves out of aircraft-grade aluminum blocks. Then he puts them in his hand-pressed injection molding machine, melts some resin beads, and pumps them through. A few minutes later, he's got a prototype to show to fans. If they like it, he gets a local toolmaker to reproduce the mold out of steel and a US-based injection molding company to make batches of a few thousand.


Why not have the parts made in China? He could, he says, but the result would be 'molds that take much longer to produce, with slow communication times and plastic that is subpar' (read: cheap). Furthermore, he says, 'if your molds are in China, who knows what happens to them when you're not using them? They could be run in secret to produce parts sold in secondary markets that you would not even know existed.'"

It's this sort of contradiction that makes some of the article seem forced. Is it that this new world will bring with it no need for protection for IP, or will there be a greater need for it?

There's no doubt that the premise of this article is real. We've seen (or you should have seen) this coming for years - 3D printing, Build-A-Bear, and in many other custom manufacturing technologies and business models. As Chris so eloquently puts it, 'If the past 10 years have been about discovering post-institutional social models on the Web, then the next 10 years will be about applying them to the real world. This story is about the next 10 years.'

This 'shop' owner had no machining expertise, but founded a profitable and robust machining business (Photo: Modern Machine Shop)

This 'shop' owner had no machining expertise, but founded a profitable and robust machining business (Photo: Modern Machine Shop)

But this isn't something as new as the article implies, either. As technology has become relatively cheap, its empowered industry experts with deep domain expertise to forgo the traditional needs for 'skill' and to concentrate almost exclusively on service. An article from 2003 that appeared in Modern Machine Shop titled 'You Can Automate More Than You Think' shows clearly that the predictions Chris makes are closer than we may want to believe. This business was formed without the tooling or machining skills once required to make precise medical treatment devices, and greatly improved the time-to-market and service options for patients and providers alike.

As technology, communications and all tools that serve the design-through-manufacture chain become more elegant and affordable, it will change the ways we view and engage manufacturing. It's that simple.

Here's hoping we have the clarity to manage that change in ways that are productive and beneficial for everyone. If outsourcing has taught us anything, it's that.

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