by Tom Igoe and Catarina Mota
This is clearly one of the major disruptive forces in the manufacturing world. It has the potential to:
• Dramatically reduce the time and cost for complex prototyping that will enable heavy manufactures to participate in the process of “fail cheaply and quickly” to dramatically reduce new product cycle times
• Significantly reduce the power of scale in maintaining competitive separation as the technology develops
• Change the balance of global production with a further reduction of dependency on labor
It is a must to read this article.
“How many do you want?” This question is central to most manufacturing business models. Ten units of a comb — or an automobile component, a book, a toy, or any industrially produced item — typically cost a lot more per unit to produce than 10,000 would. The price per unit goes down even more if you make 100,000, and much more if you make 10 million. But what happens to conventional manufacturing business models, or to the very concept of economies of scale, when millions of manufactured items are made, sold, and distributed one unit at a time? We’re about to find out.
The rapidly evolving field of digital fabrication, which was barely known to most business strategists as recently as early 2010, is beginning to do to manufacturing what the Internet has done to information-based goods and services.....
....The first step in building this new manufacturing business model is to take stock of the new fabrication tools. Digital fabrication devices fall into two categories. The first is programmable subtractive tools, which carve shapes from raw materials. These include laser cutters (which cut flat sheets of wood, acrylic, metal, cardboard, and other light materials), computer numerical control (CNC) routers and milling machines (which use drills to produce three-dimensional shapes), and cutters that use plasma or water jets to shape material. The second category is additive tools, which are primarily computer-controlled 3-D printers that build objects layer by layer, in a process known as fused deposition modeling. They work with a wide variety of materials: thermoplastics, ceramics, resins, glass, and powdered metals....
....Additive technologies have been following a path comparable to that of Moore’s Law; the capabilities of the devices are growing and the cost is decreasing exponentially. In 2001, the cheapest 3-D printer was priced at $45,000; by 2005, the cost had dropped to $22,900, and now you can buy a professional 3-D printer for less than $10,000, an open source personal version for less than $4,000, and a desktop do-it-yourself kit for less than $1,500. ..
....To be sure, digital fabrication tools have limits. Currently, they are best suited to production runs of 1,000 items or less....
...the most common applications of the technology are the production of functional models, prototype components and patterns (used for tooling or to test fit and assembly), and visual aids. All of these are areas where production runs of one unit are often necessary. Nonetheless, even these early forms of digital fabrication could become highly disruptive to conventional manufacturing practices.