The future of manufacturing is going to be based on parameters that we are not used to. The cost per unit is always a factor, but the enabling of new markets will be based on lowering the threshold to production.
Most manufacturing processes have been focused on scaling up to very large volumes of parts because of the introduction of centralized mass production in the 1920’s. While this proved to be a huge boon in most economic activities, it has it’s drawbacks. Mass production techniques have been applied to every area of the economy, even farming. This has lowered the cost of most goods and made food and consumer products widely available.
But industrialization of processes requires a massive investment in capital equipment and engineering resources to create that equipment. There is a huge learning curve built in to the means of production for cars, farm equipment, computer hard drives, etc. For manufacturing 40 million hard drives worldwide, the knowledge base and participation of engineering talent is staggering. It’s kind of like going to the moon. There are unanticipated benefits that will create new technologies and new economic benefits in other areas. In the case of the hard drive industry, many of the innovations produced have had direct impact in reducing cost and improving performance in the motion control industry.
What about serving markets that do not require a million units of something? How do we go about serving markets that are less than 10,000 units a year. Smaller markets are actually more difficult to serve because the economies of scale are not present. The requirement for 10,000 units a years is only 50 pieces per day. If you want to make a new product with a sales target of 2,000 pieces a year, you really have to think through the manufacturing processes necessary to meet cost targets.
Therein lies the rub.
Many people hail the 3D printer as the solution to this problem. But 3D printers has significant limitations in the materials that can be processed, the accuracy of the parts that are produced and the speed at which parts are produced. That’s OK. There are a lot of applications where it’s the right thing regardless. If you are making lost wax cast metal parts, being able to make inexpensive rough parts is well suited to a low end 3D printer.
Newer technologies based on 3D printing are emerging that will make high quality metal parts. Stereo Laser Sintering takes metal powder in many alloys and makes very high quality parts using the additive approach. This is extremely economical for high cost, high strength alloys. Like all of the additive approaches, it has low throughput.
But what happens to the 3D process if we start using 2 or 4 sets of extruders? The speed goes up 2 or 4 times. Since the cost of the machine would not be dramatically impacted, the cost per part continues to go down. Another approach to scaling up 3D printing is simply to add another machine. If you have a part that takes hours, and you need 50 parts per day, 10 machines will meet the requirement at the same low cost because the amortization cost is constant.
So when it comes to the Future of Manufacturing in the US, I say “Bring It!” We can meet the challenge of foreign competition by ongoing innovation.