Wednesday, January 9, 2013

3D Printing (Additive Manufacturing)

Now and then is good to change your perspective and focus on something else, right? here it goes!

For a few months now I have been following with fascination the concept of 3D printing, let me explain why: in my humble opinion we are seeing the early chapters of something that will be as revolutionary for humanity as the introduction of the Automobile and the Phone once were; early on in the evolution of those technologies (Phone and Automobile) they were seen merely as curiosities or specialized tools for the privileged few but as the cost of adoption decreased and the quality increased day to day business (and non business) applications became feasible and they drastically changed the way we lived.

What is 3D printing any way? The official name is actually Additive Manufacturing, it is called that way because solid objects are created by laying down successive layers of materials, this is different from other manufacturing methods such as boring or cutting which work based on removal of materials. Words make no justice to how cool this technology is; maybe better to check what some companies like Makerbot or FormLabs are doing: 

How is this going to change life for all of us? In my humble opinion there are two parallel paths that are likely to develop in the next few (really few) years:

Manufacturing coming back to the US, but not the Jobs
One of the key reasons manufacturing departed from US soil (not the only one though) is the combination of speed, scale and efficiency that can be achieved in countries such as China...  Famous Foxconn employs 230,000 individuals and (quoting Jennifer Rigoni, former Apple’s worldwide supply demand manager) “They could hire 3,000 people overnight,” Where else could you find thousands and thousands of workers willing to take on a repetitive new task (or series of tasks) overnight, at a low cost and on demand? I think in a few years (really few) the answer to that question will be America, but those workers will be actually robots or highly capable and programmable 3D printers and complementary assembling machines that can be programmed to create and put together whatever device you can imagine; this will likely bring very attractive new jobs to the US (someone has to design, program, maintain those robots) but relatively speaking the number of those will be small compared with the equivalent manufacturing workforce that will be displaced (that workforce displacement will mostly affect countries other than the US).

Manufacture on demand at your location of choice
Lets discount the items that we all used daily and are pretty much the same for everybody, for such what I write here will likely not apply... but now think about those things that are not manufactured in the Bazillions but instead have small production runs, maybe an engine piece that rarely fails or an addendum to a device you bought that may make it safer/easier to use. Today such things are manufactured and then stored centrally, when someone buys them they are shipped and delivered to the specified location... think about the inefficiencies of such process, the implications for fuel, packaging materials, etc. Now picture this alternative future: instead of shipping physical objects across the world what about shipping bytes across the internet that are the instructions on how to print and assemble the device, the device is “printed and assembled” at a location that is physically near to the customer and then shipped (or pick up), the advantages and possibilities of such method are really appealing and it may be possible to think of an extreme future where we all could have such “printing and assembling” capabilities right at our homes, but lets leave that for a post in the future. Think about the savings in storage, transportation and the added advantage of flexibility (it only is created if it is needed); clearly there are really strong implications in regards to business models (could it be that the creation of the IP for the device will be separated from the cost of "producing" it?). 

As I said this is a fascinating topic, I hope I awakened your curiosity about it. Here a few links for recommended reading on the topic (light reading):

What do you think?

Filiberto Selvas

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