The factory around the corner

Manufacturing plants could soon be replaced by decentralized factories with 3D printers. The technology is ready: are you?

by Lin Kayser

Consumer tech 24 January 2019

No matter where you live, there’s an issue in the manufacturing industry’s supply chains. If you live in the West, most of the products you buy are produced in remote areas of the world in order to cut costs. Unfortunately this model maximizes CO2 emissions to bring down labor costs — to the detriment of the future of our planet. On the other side of the coin, if you live in a developing country, supply chains are often broken — it is incredibly hard to get the necessary parts for your product and then ship it to the end user.

It seems like a hard issue to tackle, but we actually already have in our hands the technology that could solve it: I’m talking about digital fabrication, a fully-automated production process based on digital supply chains and 3D printing. Today, we design a product, have it produced in a remote manufacturing plant and finally distribute it globally. In the near future, we merely send a file to a 3D printer hub on the other side of the world, where the object is built – greatly shortening the distance between production and final users. Now, imagine the disruptive impact this technology will have – and I’m saying “will” because this is already reality : 3D-printed end-use parts are already in widespread use, from medical devices to structural parts of airplanes.

Going forward, Western countries won’t have the products they design produced in (and therefore shipped from) remote countries anymore. By building generic, non-specialized printing factories close to where the end customers are, the supply chain will become more fluid and decentralized; this will enable companies to innovate where their headquarters are, collaborate digitally all over the world, and have their products produced in different places from digital blueprints. For developing countries, this could be even more revolutionary: Moving to a digital supply chain and local production will eliminate a lot of the issues that are currently blocking the Third World from participating in the innovation cycles of the West. Furthermore, digital collaboration across borders allows innovators all over the world to come up with solutions that fit their local environments.

Now, this sounds pretty good already. But there are many more benefits to digital fabrication that go well beyond production and distribution and get back to where it all starts: design. Currently, design is a complex and manual process, delegated to a niche of experts. What designers and engineers do is try to keep objects as simple as possible: every additional feature generates additional time and costs. With additive methods used in digital fabrication, however, the printer doesn’t really care how complex the part is. That’s because the price of a 3D-printed object doesn’t depend on its complexity, but is essentially only determined by the amount and type of material needed.

This technology is going to completely transform how we think about the design of things — as the creation will be performed largely by algorithms: humans will describe the object in more abstract terms and leave the hard work of the actual design to computers. Some fear that automation will cause world-changing unemployment levels, but it will actually empower designers to build more efficient and sustainable products, facilitating interdisciplinary thought in the process. Today, to design a product we need experts with a very narrow focus. The future belongs to interdisciplinary thinkers who have access to tools that allow them to express their knowledge in a broad variety of fields. The time for silos is over.

This groundbreaking shift will happen over the course of the next fifteen years. I don’t expect the transition to be a smooth one, as this paradigm shift touches upon a lot of processes we take as givens: trade of physical goods, the shipping industry, specialization, division of labor, the concept of suppliers of physical goods, the modern factory as centralized logistics hub. Even the idea that a country can start its transition to the First World by providing cheap labor as a starting point. None of these hold true in the new world of Digital Fabrication.

So let’s prepare: Let’s drive the technologies forward that enable this change. Let us be the ones who built the first truly smart factories. Let’s make sure legislation is ready for a world that ships mostly digital goods and collaborates globally on physical objects. And let us train our workforce to think in interdisciplinary terms and not become siloed experts.