We stand at a cross roads that many people may be unaware of. The world of manufacturing as we know it is about to change. This claim has been made by others in
The misperception is partly due to the fact that the rate of change in industry is very slow. In a global economic environment, issues like energy usage seem to change very little. For example, the United States total vehicle population is approximately 250 million cars. The fact that the average gasoline consumption was slightly less than 20 miles per gallon is not likely to be impacted by my recent model 30 mpg car purchase. In fact, the entire output of the 3 top US automakers combined is only 13 million cars per year. So it would take 19 years for the US fleet to come up to 30 mile per gallon if that were the worst mileage performance available to the consumer.
And yet there are people thinking about manufacturing process and business practices at their very most fundamental level. Or should I say re-thinking? What happens when companies start thinking about alternative ways to process parts?
Is it possible to build an entire car body out of high performance plastic parts that 3D printed or roto-molded? How would something like that impact pricing? Is repair cost reduced because there are no parts inventories being stored in warehouses?
This is not conjecture. It has been done. Rotomolding technology has been demonstrated to make 10 foot truck hoods in a single process with the body color throughout the part. The parts reduce vehicle weight and simplify assembly into the final product.
Several startup companies are approaching car manufacturing using the most cost effective processes available. Some are taking the 3 D printer approach to body panels. Some, like Lotus Engineering, are using aerospace bonding processes and hand assembling the cars as 4 or 5 major sub-assemblies that come together around a single integrated aluminum “tub” frame. These are radical departures from the traditional “mass production” processes of Henry Ford.
And this is precisely the point. What is possible if we challenge the assumptions of “the way we’ve always done it”?
We are in a period of time where many people are seeing new opportunities to innovate, not just in the nature of new products or new technologies, but in the fundamental nature of how we do things.
The difficult policy question is how does government play a role in this change? On the one hand, we attempt to incentive innovation with Grants and facilitating loans and investment. On the other hand, we support the Big 3 automakers who represent 50 years or more of tradition, large bureaucratic organizations and a history of not changing to meet customer’s expectations. Is it in the nature of large companies to ultimately dictate what the customer will buy? Or do we allow the “Invisible Hand” of free market economics determine who succeeds and who fails?
Was it the right choice to support GM, Ford and Chrysler or would 20 new companies have sprung up to replace any one large company that failed?
What would you have done?