3D Democracy: Supply Chain Salvation and the Rebirth of the Mom and Pop Store
After three decades of development, the widespread affordability of 3D printers is about to help entrepreneurs reclaim territory guarded by industrial giants for two and half centuries. Ironically, this high-tech additive manufacturing could revive the quaint, human, and all-but-extinct Mom and Pop store. It could be the answer to supply chain woes.
We Want It Now, Better and Faster!
The Whatsapp generation wants everything now, better, and faster—don’t we all? The faster our communications, the faster we expect everything, including innovation and improvement to the products we use every day. Now manufacturing might just be able to answer that demand on a sci-fi scale.
The Wohlers Report, an annual, in-depth study of advances in additive manufacturing technologies and applications, estimates the 3D printing industry will climb to USD 3.1 billion by 2016, USD 5.2 billion by 2020.
When a player like Deloitte allies with one of the two biggest 3D printing companies, 3D Systems, to build regional 3D manufacture training labs, times are changing. Deloitte wants to establish its dominion in the new industrial age and escort its clients to the front of the herd, revamping business models by placing advanced design and 3D prototyping at the core of the manufacturing method.
Get on Board Before the Ship Has Sailed
The biggest challenge to most companies in transitioning to 3D prototyping is to make CAD (Computer Aided Design) 3D data files transferable from one program to another (of many) without data loss. But smart companies are getting on board fast. Trendsetters Nike and Adidas have already instituted 3D-printed prototypes.
Adidas says a prototype which formerly took 12 technicians several long days to produce is finished in 8 hours, and much, much cheaper. Nike says the old injection-mold method restricted major product revision to a two-year rhythm. With 3D printing the company has tested 12 prototypes in 6 months.
How soon will they be shipping shoes straight off the printer, instead of the conveyor belt? The current state-of-the-art printer takes too long: two days to print a ready-to-wear shoe. Nobody knows exactly when the printers will be fast enough to replace standard production, but here’s a safe bet: sooner than you think.
The Hermes Shoe
3D printing doesn’t just speed up production; it can speed us up, too.
Designer Luc Fasaro, a graduate of the Royal College of Art in London, has made the lightest shoes in history. Each 96-gram shoe is custom-fitted, using a polymer blend and design tweaked to complement the unique performance strengths of each athlete. Mr. Fasaro claims the shoes will produce a 0.35 second advantage in competitions, and predicts that runners could win in these shoes at the Olympic level, and even break world records.
The Monogrammed World
What’s next? Tailored shoes for everyone, to start, with a scanner-printer duo in retail stores to take perfect measurements and print form-fitted shoes. Add a little flourish on the spot, and monograms for the kids! For better or worse, personal statements will be leaping off the pages of Facebook and Twitter and onto the sides of handbags, shoes, and trousers.
3D Systems offers a pricey custom design-and-print service for shoes and other self-made couture. But one day we’ll download shoe blueprints to personalize and print at home.
It’s in the news everyday: another material we can squeeze through the printer head: metals, ceramics, and stem cells are the latest; plastics, cement, and synthetic resins are standard fare. Soon 3D printing will be the most time-and cost-efficient method for producing wires, electrodes, antennae, optical materials, and batteries. Despite the high cost of printers and materials, the final cost of printing actual user products is already lower than that of building them in factories. 3D manufacturing will eventually replace traditional factories.
GE, Boeing, and Honeywell have long used 3D printing for their prototypes, and are on the verge of printing actual parts. More than 20,000 parts go into a Boeing aircraft, so when they start printing real components, and then larger parts like wings and cockpit hulls, it will speed progress in the entire industry.
Miniature surveillance drones and rockets have already been printed in the UK and the US. On horizon: full-size drones, satellites, and spaceship components.
NASA has already tested 3D printing in zero-gravity simulations. They believe they can create 3D printers which recycle broken modules in-flight and reprint them, lightening the flight load and rescuing astronauts and missions from the return-or-die mechanical failures which have haunted previous missions.
The Weight of Supply Chain Sin
Back to earth: the global supply chain is in need of a rescue, too, and it could be 3D printing.
The best minds in big business have sought to master the complex, long lead-time supply route from central suppliers on the other side of the world, like China and India. The nuclear meltdown and power shutdowns following the 2011 Japanese tsunami exploded the illusion of control.
It was the final blow to just-in-time cost streamlining in the supply chain, overly centralized manufacturing, and mysterious global hierarchies of suppliers to suppliers to suppliers, from raw material providers to component makers.
In the past decade earthquakes, tsunami, fires, volcanic eruption, terror attacks, disease outbreaks, infrastructure neglect, and labor strikes have imposed massive losses on virtually every industry: telecommunications, computer hardware, automotive, air travel, and international trading. Losses of USD billions were the work of a day.
Now the word “surplus” isn’t quite as dirty, and computer, smart phone, and automobile manufacturers have decided to get to know their supply chains in detail, no matter how remote the sources and links. But balancing waste and cost-cutting, during a prolonged period of economic turbulence and decline, is more difficult than ever.
Looking for Answers Closer to Home
It’s time to refocus, projecting beyond even the 3D-printed prototype standard, to a 3D manufacturing epoch.
The middle market has come back in recent years to become a major contender economically, bolstering national stability and viability, as “too-big-to-fail” multinationals fall, and others teeter in the shadows.
3D printing will bring success even closer to home. The manufacturing landscape is about to be razed, a modern version of the pre-industrial market structure erected in its place. We are about to rediscover not only the lost warmth of the Mom and Pop store, but also close-to-home comfort of the Mom and Pop supplier.
Consumer products will walk straight off the printer. That means a local entrepreneur could invest a few thousand in a heavy-duty 3D printer, and become the neighborhood provider of everything from bespoke clothing to custom furniture. With ready-made CAD blueprints for sale from established manufacturers and designers, the corner store will thrive again.
Is Salvation at Hand? Shortening the Supply Chain
The UK has already announced a new national curriculum for 2014. Beginning in kindergarten, students will be trained in essential 3D design and printing, as well as robotics. The rising generations will expect a fully customized world, and business needs to be ready.
The bespoke era is here. Companies have to shift from the factory mold to individual customization to keep their places in the age of personal manufacturing.
The automobile supply industry will change dramatically, for one. Companies will need to transition from using small numbers of centralized, remote suppliers to sourcing from numerous smaller, local part and end-product makers.
It will simplify the production hierarchy, as 3D printers create complex parts, and eventually complete products. It also means that companies will have to interact continuously with numerous small-scale parts and end-product makers, and facilitate transparency between producers. Suppliers will need to be trained in design, data transfer, confidentiality, quality, and scheduling standards. And, of course, companies will have to be vigilant about quality inspection across the production and delivery process.
Customer feedback should also be integrated into a perpetual improvement cycle, through direct interaction and online forums, because when design tweaking and immediate improvement are possible, they will be expected. Slow responses will spell company death.
The End to Massive Supply Chain Disruption?
Pandemic shutdowns should be ancient history, barring a regional power outage. Optimizing inventory levels will mean keeping a supply of standardized material packets ready for deployment as printer “ink”.
Real-time monitoring of materials and component distribution through smart sensors, and an emergency network of alternate local suppliers, will be essential.
State-of-the-art connectivity and direct interaction between the manufacturer, suppliers, and retailers, will keep parts and end products sourced and delivered on time.
Most replacement parts will be printed on the spot. Your car wheel rolled off between Paris and Zurich? Drop into your local shop on the way to work and have a perfect match printed and fitted in minutes!
Say goodbye to cross-continental transit, other than for massive end-products. Lead times will be short, the pace of delivery faster, and transport complexity reduced, lowering the risk of damage or loss in transit.
It will still be hard to get raw materials, but the good news is that researchers are already discovering synthetic reproductions which are identical or superior to scarce resources, and which could simply be printed locally. A win for the supply chain and resource scarcity.
Printing individual items on demand also means we can stop dumping pallets of surplus stock into landfills.
A Counterfeiter on Every Block?
Shapeway and other tech parks already 3D-print on demand—the modern print and copy house. Technological breakthroughs are gaining momentum every year. The cheapest home 3D printer is USD 500, but materials are too expensive to make home production affordable to everyone. The price will sink eventually, and every home will have a 3D printer.
Idealists croon about a harmonious future of global crowd-sharing, as in the magical online world of Thingiverse, MakerBot’s crowdsourcing design platform. While it’s true that anyone can upload or download and modify a 3D design, it’s also true that “take-down” notices have been served to some of them. You want to replicate your Toy Story action figures at a fraction of the store price? Sorry!
Real-time connectivity, hundreds of suppliers printing from CAD designs, 3D scanners in every smart phone, even in eye glasses, will make it “virtually” impossible to prevent design theft and counterfeiting.
Of course, intellectual property regulation needs to be adapted quickly and decisively to the new manufacturing world. But instead of hunting down renegades, the best thing businesses can do is create a plan for selling and marketing ready-made, high-quality design-templates and material kits. Most people would rather purchase a sophisticated, ready-made blueprint and tweak it, than labor over complicated software for hours to make an inferior product from scratch.
Goliath Never Truly Dies
3D printing will put the power to create in the hands of smaller businesses, neighborhood suppliers, and anyone with a little bit of space, money, and knowledge. It sounds like a golden era of democracy in manufacturing.
The impact on established outsourcing and manufacturing countries—China and India, especially—could be even greater than in fully developed economies. They could be left even farther behind—due to lack of training, capital, or local consumer base. Some businesses fear 3D-equipped factories in China would create a counterfeiting monster of grotesque size. But perhaps instead, they’ll find themselves better equipped to create their own power industries and claim the high-level intellectual direction of manufacturing across sectors.
A couple of 3D Goliaths are already casting shadows on the horizon, capitalizing on the technology before the most of us even know it’s there.
No sooner did Stratasys merge with MakerBot in June of this year, than they announced their plan for further mergers and acquisitions to entrench their market position, particularly in metal printing. Not to be left behind, just four days after 3D Systems announced their new partnership with Deloitte, they proudly broadcast the acquisition of the French company Phenix Systems. This adds metal to their material palette as well, so they can print electronics and industrial-strength products.
Bigger size does create a bigger pool of collaborative in-house talent and capital for development, but it could also prove to be the anti-democratic resistance in 3D manufacturing. Human nature has not changed much over the course of our evolution.
Instead of harmonious crowdsourcing, smaller 3D manufacturers could be crowded out. Or maybe the 3D mammoths will be happy to shift their focus to the industrial level—aerospace, mass transit, and high rise architecture.
None of these challenges will prevent 3D printing from changing manufacturing for ever.
The exclusive reign of the industrial manufacturer is coming to an end, as 3D printing and smart communication fuel a resurgence of the Mom and Pop store, and the Mom and Pop supplier. Manufacturers will have to revamp and revitalize business plans and take advantage of the supply chains benefits, to continue to be a vital economic force in the new, bespoke, 3D democracy.
Click here to read the intro of this 3D Printing series: http://xlgroup.com/fast-fast-forward/articles/3d-printing-intro