3D Manufacturing: New Weapon For US Economy - InformationWeek

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IT Leadership // Enterprise Agility
10:13 AM
Samir Shah
Samir Shah

3D Manufacturing: New Weapon For US Economy

We can turn a hobby into real economic power if we start using 3D on an industrial scale.

The year is 2017.

Nearly every one of the US's 120 million households has its own multicolor 3DC3 printer with a C3 bath (a C3H6O finishing tank).

The President of the US officially announces a total end to consumer imports of plastic goods.

We are not buying iPhone 9 cases from Asia. Instead, Americans buy a one-time license of their favorite Starck design from the AppStore, and customize it further, as needed.

Admittedly this vision for 2017 takes some leaps of optimism. Anybody familiar with 3D printing has hoped for a version of such a future. Yet in 2014 we are not thinking seriously enough of how 3D printing, otherwise known as additive manufacturing, can bring such change to our economy -- because it can! If we are not thinking of ways to bring about US manufacturing independence with the aid of additive manufacturing, we are not thinking big enough.

Individual households making what they need is what I term "3D making." Let’s face it, even 120 million home-printers cannot make the US self-sufficient in plastic product manufacturing. For a macro-economic change on a national scale, "3D manufacturing" is the way to go. 

Making versus manufacturing
Three things are desperately needed from today’s 3D technology:

  1. Rapid progress toward superior quality finishing.
  2. Width and depth of product range (a greater variety of materials prepared for automated processes).
  3. Industrial-scale customization to achieve required volumes and speed of production.

Effectively, we need to separate delightful, hobby-level, in-home making from economy-empowering manufacturing. Let’s look at a 3D manufacturing future: 

It is 12:30 p.m. on August 15, in the year 2020. People are busy shopping on a "dot-3d" website:

1. Katie has a new pink dress. She designs, in the exact same pink shade, a 14.5-ounce clear plastic water bottle (to fit the backpack pocket) with a pink lid and a pink lunchbox for two sandwiches -- exactly 14 cm x 28 cm x 1.8 cm.

2. Tim is growing fast, and his jeans (blue denim-with-maroon highlights) should fit perfectly if sized 26.25 inches x 30.5 inches.

3. Phil orders a wooden footstool for Granny made of New England red oak, to match her kitchen, at 11 inches high by 24 inches wide. On a whim, he adds a little floral design engraved just for dear old Nana.

4. Little Johnny's mother wants precisely nine purple stars on a yellow 50% polyester pillow case (easier to wash out his nighttime drool).

5. She adds a ceramic baking dish to the check-out cart with an olive green glaze, exactly the size that will fit the baking drawer and the oven. She needs a replica of Johnny's action figure for his ninth birthday's cake. Oh, never mind, she can just print that one at home.

All orders will be fulfilled today. They will be picked up at the automated Scan-D-Liver drive-through after work, on the way home.

This really can happen -- if we go the 3D manufacturing route. This is the path for a mass-customized economy, where we are no longer dependent on foreign imports -- leading to a renaissance of industry.

This brings us to the trillion-dollar question: "Why do we need this so desperately?"

The West led the Industrial Revolution until about the 1930s, when Asia joined in. Asia is still in the thick of it. During dozens of visits to China over the past 17 years, I have seen "cities" easily the size of the entire metropolitan area of a major American city that are entirely devoted to the manufacture and global sale of select product categories. Each region produces its own specialty. Other economies thunder ahead while our long-term productivity rate is dropping alarmingly (for more, see "America’s Lost Oomph" in The Economist). Our innovations in 3D Technologies are being watched closely by foreign economies. Worse still, the tech is being emulated before we implement it ourselves for large size and large-scale production. If we are not alert, we may not lead the 3D manufacturing economy.

What could we do to spur the growth of 3D manufacturing in the US?

Built on existing technologies, a single additive manufacturing machine serving about 2 million people becomes part of a manufacturing network of a hundred such machines across the country. The network becomes specialized for a select product category. In being fragmented, it can act as a factory in the cloud, with neural ends in every city, reacting to local needs. This is digitally distributed 3D manufacturing.

Here are some steps we could take in the immediate future: 

1. Hack materials. Not all materials fit into the current dominant approach to additive manufacturing, which is powdered-bonded-jettisoning. Nor can they all be melted from filaments. We need to get into the properties of materials and tweak their delivery mechanisms in order to decide how the material behaves and performs. This is the area my company is involved in, using additive manufacturing with wood. We have hacked this organic fibrous material to produce real, solid wood objects using a stratified additive manufacturing process. Not just footstools, but food platters, solid wood doors, picture frames, furniture, and much more can be produced off CAD design files.

2. Miniaturize our factory giants. Climbing a ladder using only hands is silly. We should use the huge foothold of knowledge available to us -- our existing factory base. Most processes of mass-production happening in giant centralized plants today can be miniaturized to work on smaller, albeit still industrial machines that need a few hundred square feet instead of a few acres. We can achieve this along with the "hack materials" approach just mentioned. This will require thoughtful application of physics, chemistry, and mechanics (which we already possess), but the payoff could truly be great.

3. Believe the math. Five hundred households could each buy a fine desktop machine, spending a total of $500,000. But how much return will that add to the economy or reduce imports? More valuable would be a $500,000 3D manufacturing machine (to mass-customize orders) that can produce high-quality goods for 2 million people and add anywhere between $3 million to $5 million in revenue.

Very simply, we need to hack more materials, build on our knowledge base, and make more macro capital investments.

By 2020, the US can hugely reduce imports, make locally, bring jobs back, use our raw material, produce goods to our standards, reduce inventory investment, customize everything, blow up the supply chain, minimize waste, have a greener system, and once again, be the manufacturing superpower we need to become.

3D making is all set to blossom into manufacturing. 3D manufacturing will bring the world to our doorstep.

Hear Samir Shah and other top speakers at Designers of Things, the new event in wearable tech, 3D printing, and the Internet of Things. It happens Sept. 23-24 in San Francisco. Register for Designers of Things with marketing code EBDOT and save.

Samir Shah is an architect, interior designer, furniture designer, ex-manufacturer of custom furniture, and a process and machine consultant to the woodworking industry. He is CEO and co-founder of 4 AXYZ Inc. (pronounced Four Axes), and designer of the Stratified ... View Full Bio
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User Rank: Author
8/6/2014 | 12:37:54 PM
Re: It is an evolution, not a revolution
@moonwatcher yes, it's been around for decades but only came to mainsteam attention in recent years. As for its role in manufacturing, I interviewed somoene in the industry who thought its real game-changing potential lies in making the tools of manufacturing more efficient rather than the consumer products themselves. See here.
User Rank: Ninja
8/5/2014 | 9:24:59 AM
Let's see how Amazon's 3-D store does
Now that Amazon is offering 3-D printing, it will be interesting to see if people will take advantage of it, and be willing ot wait a few days to get their custom parts, or will they see the need to invest $1000 to $2000 in their own machine,  which they'll have to maintain, just like an ink jet printer, in order to get nearly instant gratification. Currently,  even fairly simple parts require an hour or so to build on a Makerbot. And choices in hwo the build is done can greatly affect the parts. There is a learning curve involved. Will the masses be up for that learning curve?
User Rank: Ninja
8/5/2014 | 9:13:44 AM
It is an evolution, not a revolution
3-D Manufacturing, or more correctly, "Adative Manufacturing" is not some over-night sensation, despite all the media hype surrounding it (mainly because of the idea of making untraceable guns using the technology). This has been decades coming since the 1960's. Laser metal sintering will probably be even more important than squirinting out ABS plastic to make iPhone cases. And due to gravity, there are many plastic parts that simply cannot be made with a 3-D printer, parts that are far more suitable for injection molding and other techniques. Will people beyond hobbyists have a 3-D printer in their house one day? Maybe. But it definitely won't replace "industrial scale" use of plastics. Not anytime soon. I love the technology. It allows me to do rapid prototypes, but it simply isn't a replacement for an experienced manufacturer who has hundreds of thousands of dollars of specialized equipment at their disposal. I would love to see that process using wood. That would be pretty amazing.
User Rank: Author
8/4/2014 | 12:27:33 PM
Re: hoping for 3D printing
I find the use cases Samir paints here valuable because they focus on the "why" 3D printing could be so valuable -- this customization element, whether it's jeans built to size or a lunchbox designed to exact color specs. Li Tan, you point to the technical problems, which Samir points to with his "hack materials" requirement. But we also need the business models to make that pursuit worthwhile.     
User Rank: Ninja
8/2/2014 | 6:04:55 PM
Re: hoping for 3D printing
Very interesting article. I think 3D printing has huge potential. There's still a ways to go before it hits mainstream, however. That may require some sort of consumer-facing product or service that enables anyone to print things.

I know that there are already stores that do just that, but they are few and far between. 3D printing's success will come the same way the PC hit the masses: one in every home. 
Li Tan
Li Tan,
User Rank: Ninja
8/2/2014 | 6:27:50 AM
Re: Wood products and clothing too?
That's also what I am interested. Can 3D printing produce the stuff like clothes and leather shoes? The electronic and software part should not be a big issue. My concern lies in mechanical and material part. It's hard to deal with cloth material such as flax and leather shoes may be too complicated for 3D printer nowadays.:-)
User Rank: Ninja
8/1/2014 | 11:20:35 PM
Wood products and clothing too?
I've seen a 3D printer in action and it was so amazing, actually seeing a complex shape literally come into being like something materializing out of a Star Trek transporter. But it was plastic. I wasn't aware this was possible with cloth or wood. I can imagine a database of, well, Everthing, just waiting for someone to plunk some money down to get a copy produced. Never mind little Johnny, I'm imagining myself not spending the better part of an afternoon trying to hunt down a pair of jeans in exactly my size. I'll never have to go shopping again!! With the potential economies of scale possible here, I can image gigantic companies coming into being and making huge changes in the way manufacturing is done. Who will these new Microsofts be?
Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
8/1/2014 | 7:31:05 PM
hoping for 3D printing
3D printing probably has more implications for commercial manufacturers than individuals. Though 3D printing has been touted as a way for people to make their own goods, it's generally much easier, cheaper, and faster to drive to the nearest mall or shop if you live in an urban area.

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