The Beginning of the End of Scale Production Thinking?

Scale manufacturing: facing an extinction level event?

The days when scale manufacturing plants — facilities designed to make a lot of something in order to reduce the proportion of fixed costs as well as semi-variable expenses, such as hourly labor — as well as the idea of limiting variety in order to make a lot of something, may not end right away but the premise behind this manufacturing doctrine is year by year becoming increasingly questionable.

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, whereby objects are created from a digital file by depositing layer upon layer of a substance, is now moving from isolated experiments and novelty to full-scale application; a new era of highly advanced manufacturing unrecognizable to most, is upon us and Black Belts, engineers, designers, product developers and most importantly business leaders need to get their minds around this quickly in order to seize upon the opportunities this creates.

Traditional supply chain thinking is rooted in the idea that you make something in one place and have to figure out how to orchestrate the timing and quantity of stuff flowing into the plant and then out to the final consumer. Digital manufacturing, at its extreme, puts micro factories in many places and allows the end-user to make what they need, when they need it. More than that, the digital nature of the process will enable customization of a kind never before practical. The future belongs to the people who can develop better and better “printers”, different kinds of substances these printers can use to create things, and the designers who, on their computers, create designs that people want and download from a 3D manufacturing equivalent of iTunes (who knows, it might even be iTunes).

The Economist wrote recently:

Instead of bashing, bending and cutting material the way it always has been, 3D printers build things by depositing material, layer by layer. That is why the process is more properly described as additive manufacturing. An American firm, 3D Systems, used one of its 3D printers to print a hammer for your correspondent, complete with a natty wood-effect handle and a metallised head.

This is what manufacturing will be like in the future. Ask a factory today to make you a single hammer to your own design and you will be presented with a bill for thousands of dollars. The makers would have to produce a mould, cast the head, machine it to a suitable finish, turn a wooden handle and then assemble the parts. To do that for one hammer would be prohibitively expensive. If you are producing thousands of hammers, each one of them will be much cheaper, thanks to economies of scale. For a 3D printer, though, economies of scale matter much less. Its software can be endlessly tweaked and it can make just about anything. The cost of setting up the machine is the same whether it makes one thing or as many things as can fit inside the machine; like a two-dimensional office printer that pushes out one letter or many different ones until the ink cartridge and paper need replacing, it will keep going, at about the same cost for each item.

Everything in the factories of the future will be run by smarter software. Digitisation in manufacturing will have a disruptive effect every bit as big as in other industries that have gone digital, such as office equipment, telecoms, photography, music, publishing and films. And the effects will not be confined to large manufacturers; indeed, they will need to watch out because much of what is coming will empower small and medium-sized firms and individual entrepreneurs.

The consequences of all these changes, this report will argue, amount to a third industrial revolution. The first began in Britain in the late 18th century with the mechanisation of the textile industry. In the following decades the use of machines to make things, instead of crafting them by hand, spread around the world. The second industrial revolution began in America in the early 20th century with the assembly line, which ushered in the era of mass production.

As manufacturing goes digital, a third great change is now gathering pace. It will allow things to be made economically in much smaller numbers, more flexibly and with a much lower input of labour, thanks to new materials, completely new processes such as 3D printing, easy-to-use robots and new collaborative manufacturing services available online. The wheel is almost coming full circle, turning away from mass manufacturing and towards much more individualised production.

How far could this technology go? Mr Idelchik, of GE Global Research, has his sights set high: “One day we will print an engine.” But a number of manufacturers, such as GE and Rolls-Royce, believe that some form of hybrid printing system will emerge. This would produce the outline of a shape, thus saving on material, which can then be machined for precision.

The Replicator, a robotic rapid-manufacturing system made by Cybaman Technologies, a British firm, already gets close. The size of a large refrigerator, it is capable of both subtractive and additive manufacturing. It uses a laser-based deposition system to build a basic shape which is finished by machining. The Replicator, as befits its name, is also capable of reverse engineering by digitally scanning an object placed inside it to produce the data needed to build an exact replica.

The Replicator is as near as current technology can get to the teleporter of science fiction. It could scan an object in one place and tell another machine on the other side of the world how to build a copy. That means, for instance, that urgently needed spares could be produced in remote places without having to ship anything. Even parts that are no longer available could be replicated, by scanning a broken item, repairing it virtually and then printing a new one. The chances are, though, that digital libraries will appear online for parts and products that are no longer available. Just as the emergence of e-books means books may never go out of print, components could always remain available. Service mechanics could have portable 3D printers in their vans, or hardware stores could offer part-printing services.

Some people already have 3D printers at home. Industrial 3D-printing systems start at about $15,000 and go up to more than $1m, says Mr Wohlers. But cheaper desktop machines are creating an entirely new market (last year, 25,000 3D printers were sold worldwide that cost less than $4,000; this is eerily similar to the numbers and prices for the early personal computers). This is made up of hobbyists, do-it-yourself enthusiasts, tinkerers, inventors, researchers and entrepreneurs. Some 3D-printing systems can be built from kits and use open-source software. But big producers of 3D printers are also entering the market.

3D Systems, which produces a variety of prototyping and industrial machines, is now launching a consumer range of small 3D printers, called the Cube, which can make things like toys, chess pieces and ornaments. They have been developed along with an online platform called Cubify to provide services for a community of users. Priced at $1,299, the Cube prints by depositing a thin layer of material from cartridges, which come in different colours. This cures as a hard plastic. They can produce parts up to 5.5 inches (140mm) cubed at a typical cost in materials of about $3.50. The quality is not up to that of industrial printers, but it is good enough for many people. Higher-quality creations can be uploaded to Cubify’s online printing service.

The new range is not just about printing things, says Abe Reichental, 3D Systems’ chief executive. It is also about simplifying the process of making products and letting people use the power of the web to share ideas. “This is a personal manufacturing revolution,” he says.

New materials and organisms are also now in use, turning manufacturing from a “smoke-stack” effort into a high-technology affair leveraging genetics. The Economist writes:

Nature already uses materials with nanoscale structures to great effect. The fossils that attracted the interest of Angela Belcher were formed some 500m years ago when soft-bodied organisms in the sea began using minerals to grow hard materials in the form of shells and bone. These natural products contain exquisite nanostructures, like the iridescent shells of abalone, says Ms Belcher. If creatures have the ability to make materials like that in their DNA, she concluded, it should be possible to emulate it. That is what her research group at MIT is now trying to do, using genetic engineering.

Odd though it may seem, one of Ms Belcher’s projects involves using viruses to make batteries. Viruses—usually the sort that infect bacteria and are harmless to humans—are a fairly common tool in genetic engineering. To begin with, Ms Belcher and her colleagues genetically engineer the viruses to interact or bind with materials they are interested in. As they do not have millions of years to wait, they employ what amounts to a high-speed Darwinian process: making a billion viruses at a time, selecting those with promise and repeating the process until they get a strain capable of doing what they want.

The team has developed viruses that can produce the elements of a battery, such as the cathode and anode, and used them to make small button-cells, like those that power a watch, but the process has the potential to be scaled up. What makes the technology so attractive, says Ms Belcher, is that it is cheap, uses non-toxic materials and is environmentally friendly.

Two companies founded by Ms Belcher are already making things with viruses. Cambrios Technologies is producing transparent coatings for touch screens and Siluria Technologies (Ms Belcher likes to name her companies after geological time spans) is using viruses to develop catalysts for turning natural gas into oil and plastics. There are also potential applications in solar cells, medical diagnostics and cancer treatment. And all that from an idea inspired by a sea shell.

Clearly in the early phases of this new industrial revolution, these new technologies will see adoption in high-value items made from materials that 3D printers currently support, such as metals, plastics or resins. But it is possible that manufacturing, by becoming a digital domain, will experience its own kind of Moore’s Law effect whereby the cost of each subsequent wave of additive manufacturing becomes less expensive as the underlying technology becomes cheaper and cheaper. As chemicals are added to the mix, we will see not just additive manufacturing but many small mini “plants” able to make drugs, food, and other things based on combining chains of molecules together.

Recently, Dr. Mark Post, of Eindhoven University in the Netherlands, made beef in a lab using stem cells extracted from cattle muscle. The cultures are sheets 3cm long, 1.5cm wide and half a millimetre deep. Currently this is a prohibitively expensive undertaking, but it is only a matter of time before all kinds of foods could be made at mini plants, virtually eliminating the need for the transport of food through long supply chains and over-production due to the “scale” mentality applied to food production, that not only consumes huge amounts of energy but is responsible for vast spoilage of food that destroys almost a third of all the food produced on Earth. Interestingly, food production of this nature, meat and seafood aside, is ironically how people used to get their food, at small local shops and made from scratch at home.

Consider the humble home bread maker morphing into a souped-up version using new smart technology integrated with web-enabled recipes that would turn the bread maker into a kind of “meal maker” in every home. Or perhaps rather than in every home there are advanced “micro food plants” at locations such as grocery stores. There is a tremendous opportunity for smaller firms and entrepreneurs to re-think manufacturing and to participate in this next industrial revolution.

Today’s large-scale manufacturers are probably too emotionally, intellectually, and monetarily invested in the old manufacturing model to make the transition but more nimble firms and entrepreneurs have much to gain by leap frogging their larger brethren. Weighed-down by their legacy assets and wedded to scale-production thinking, the large companies could see themselves swept aside by rivals that would be the epitome of lean six sigma thinking — one-piece, just in time, customized product created at a competitive cost because all the infrastructure of a soon-to-be non value-added supply chain is largely eliminated. This vision of manufacturing is still some ways off, but it does provide a sense of the possibilities that must have electrified Steve Jobs and Bill Gates when they first gazed upon the Altair 8800.

Big things often have small beginnings