Makers and 3D printing are the usual headliners for the transformation that’s taking place with the future of manufacturing. Go ahead and take your pick of monikers for this era underway—“Manufacturing 3.0,” the “Third Industrial Revolution,” or the “Maker Movement.”
The buzz continues to amplify. Some 3D-printed applications are seemingly trivial, such as food, ornaments, or musical instruments. Others are more serious, like medical devices, or even bioprinting. But this isn’t the whole story.
Outside the popularization of 3D printing, the new manufacturing ecosystem that’s currently taking root holds tangible—and potentially incredible—business benefits. Rapid prototyping with huge reductions in time and cost? Check. Manufacturing jobs returning to the U.S.? Check. Less material waste and machinery setup costs (or even one machine instead of multiple to do a single job)? Check.
Yet somewhere in all of the discussions and “isn’t that cool?” media coverage, we often lose an important component. What about the role of the customer?
What the Customer Wants, the Customer Gets
Of course, a basic business tenet is to deliver on customers’ demands—but that has never been simple or easy to do. The “new industrial revolution” (another title!) blows the roof off of this entirely by allowing more customers to get what they want, when they want it, at a price they’re willing to pay—and, more than ever, where they want it. A whole new group of players can now economically address the long tail of demand and provide what the customer wants.
Customers are increasingly demanding more complex, interconnected, and personalized products and services. Arguably, the present era could be termed “Markets of One.” The large power shift toward consumers’ demands and desires holds exciting potential as well as new complications and disruptions in established production, sales cycles, and supply chains. Manufacturers will be under increasing pressure to innovate quickly and more often—or perish.
Today, no product is too offbeat, personalized, or complicated to be brought to market. Modular smartphone? Create-your-own chocolate bar? Personally designed heels or sneakers? No problem. Consumers can engage with both established companies and any of the new, small Agile manufacturing businesses that have emerged to address niche requirements or preferences. These companies can target those who want a more personalized product and are willing to pay a premium for it.
Personalization is two-pronged as well. Take a pair of shoes. Yes, you can choose the color, the heel height, or any number of pre-defined options. But now a new world of hyper personalization is here—one where the product is designed specifically for you, whether it’s a hearing aid to fit the shape of your ear, a prosthetic, or in the far future, a body organ.
Alternately, customers can now invest in products by directly supporting projects via crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter or Indiegogo. Crowdsourcing is another channel for fresh ideas to become reality, with the added benefit of improving the quality of designs through collaboration and early feedback.
Customers are in the driver’s seat; they no longer have to wait for a company to make a product decision or for a benevolent angel investor to come along. The stories of Pebble (a customizable watch with apps that sync to the rest of your digital life) and Canary (a smart home-security device powered by your mobile phone) are the stuff of which customer-demand startup legends are made.
From Personal Computing to Personal Manufacturing
Now back to our friend 3D printing and its huge commercial play. Customers won’t have to look further than their own backyard—or, er, 3D printer—for products. While still in a nascent stage, it’s only a matter of time before a 3D printer is as accessible as the home document printer.
Like the personal-computing revolution, “personal manufacturing” will be available at home or at “maker spaces” that are spreading across the country. Even now, retail outlets like FedEx and The UPS Store are beginning to provide access to 3D printers, and this trend will only continue to grow.
Within the next decade, as 3D-printing services and consumer devices become more affordable and ubiquitous and as their quality and choices of materials increase, companies will start providing digital versions of their products and parts. Consumers will be able to download, modify, and print these digital versions directly, without highly specialized skill sets.
For example, think about the business shift of print-your-own replacement parts for everyday household appliances. Today, if a plastic piece on your refrigerator door breaks, it’s a major pain to replace it.
Home or local 3D printing would deliver the win-win in this scenario. The manufacturer wins because they don’t have to maintain parts in inventory for undetermined periods of time and then ship them to the customer; the consumer wins because they don’t have to track down or order a tiny part that seems trivial, but is a major nuisance if it breaks. And the best part is it’s at lower cost to both parties.
This type of disruption will ultimately send major shockwaves of change through the manufacturing world, from product resale to sustainability. The potential savings in shipping and environmental impact are pretty amazing. Instead of a society of disposable products, we can fix things ourselves again—at home or a couple miles away at our local FedEx store.
In addition to the potential for ready-to-3D-print designs, there is also the growing opportunity to scan any object, digitally modify or “fix” it, and 3D print it. To be fair, we aren’t close to this point quite yet for either downloaded or scanned designs on a mass scale. But it’s too compelling not to become a reality eventually.
Product and service ideas are no longer the sole province of large, established corporations or startups hungry for elusive VC capital. The value proposition for both customers and manufacturers is driving this democratization, creating an ecosystem and a symbiosis of consumers, makers, entrepreneurs, and established companies, and “enabling” companies (crowdsourced product-development company Quirky is a prime example) to make it happen.
This era for the future of manufacturing—whatever we want to call it—is good for everyone. It means more innovation, more opportunities for entrepreneurs, more jobs, more consumer choices, and more cooperation between players big and small. When creativity, collaboration, and choice are allowed to flourish, everyone wins—including the now empowered customer.