Written by Jonathan Bach
The consumer market “hype” around new manufacturing technology such as 3D printing, 3D scanning and industrial robotics has led to over $1 billion of equity and debt capital being raised last year. This has led to a swift increase in the number of industry players. Stock prices have exploded, but as investors reevaluate their quickly appreciating stakes, they are exiting their positions. Essentially, the investor has become more cautious. So where is the current market and where could the technology lead?
The media currently is focusing on 3D printing for the consumer. Stores such as iMakr sell 3D printers, scanners, and parts to individuals who wish to make art, architecture models, toys, and small prototypes. Kickstarter houses many projects that have taken up the consumer model with products such as Artifex 2 and 3Dental. Interestingly, ideas such as printing an entire building or car used to entertain the minds of people who wondered where this technology could take industry. It may be time for investors, engineers, and media outlets to reimagine the possibilities that could lead to the next industrial revolution.
Taking a look at the manufacturing process of the last 100 years shows little change. Sure, we made innovations, but there has not been a radical change that has led to extreme cost cuts and margin improvements. The three largest potential advantages to 3D printing technology are related to product design, production flexibility, and increased technological application. In terms of product design, the idea that “form creates content” is very important. The way we manufacture products places a limit around product design. It begs the question: “How are current production capabilities restraining what we can envision and thus create?” 3D printing allows us to break away from traditional manufacturing as we now have capabilities such as building the interior parts of a product while simultaneously constructing the exterior shell. In terms of production flexibility, prototyping and replication allow companies to test markets and change products according to demand, while sustaining margin. Companies can act faster and manufacture closer to end markets. In terms of increased technological application, new technology end markets are more numerous. For example, the current production process consists of highly specialized machinery. One machine will screw a bolt, while another punctures holes. New 3D printing technology can quickly melt metal to lightly layer the backs of phones to increase cell reception. The same technology can be used to quickly fill the deep cracks of industrial propellers, without having to remove them. One technology can be applied to many needs. Eventually, manufacturing businesses could even consolidate, offering services to firms in different sectors.
In order for the realization of these opportunities, companies need to envision how to create manufacturing networks, not just a single printer or scanner. They will also need to find an efficient way for firms to transition from the current model to the next. Let’s rethink this. As my economics professor will say, “food for thought.”