For these reasons, no one expects digital fabrication to replace conventional manufacturing anytime soon. According to a 2010 report from the technology market research firm Wohlers Associates Inc., the most common applications of the technology are the production of functional models, prototype components and patterns (used for tooling or to test fit and assembly), and visual aids. All of these are areas where production runs of one unit are often necessary. Nonetheless, even these early forms of digital fabrication could become highly disruptive to conventional manufacturing practices.
How is one factory making 1 million units different from 10,000 factories making 100 units? For one thing, the 10,000 factories offer the safety and ability to experiment that comes with redundancy. For another, they offer proximity to local customers, and thus useful information about their needs and wants. Having a large number of small shops immediately at hand ensures that when one shop is not available, another can be brought into service. The rapid tooling turnaround afforded by digital fabrication means that each shop can change production runs for different clients as needed. The ability to augment mass production with highly customized components and parts, to reduce inventory by making components on demand, or to make setup changes more rapidly at a lower cost, could dramatically affect supply chain design, finance, and management.
The potential for transforming manufacturing business models is most evident in healthcare, an industry that requires mass customization because every person’s body is different. Wohlers estimated the 2009 revenues from 3-D-printed medical devices at $157 million. British manufacturing expert Phil Reeves says more than 10 million 3-D-printed hearing aids are in circulation worldwide (it takes just an hour and a half to fabricate one), along with more than 500,000 3-D-printed dental implants. Medical researchers are using fabricators to turn CT and MRI scans into 3-D models and, at a still very experimental level, to “bioprint” artificial bones, blood vessels, and even kidneys layer by layer from living tissue. Established manufacturers still have the upper hand when it comes to larger quantities or complex assembly. That could change, however, as the devices foster new waves of experimentation.
Open Source Manufacturing
Probably the most disruptive element of this technology is not the tools themselves, but the maker culture — the community of people who sell, use, and adapt the tools of digital fabrication. This community is, in effect, a self-organizing global supply chain, consisting of hundreds of interlinked businesses, user groups, online shopping sites, and social media environments. Online fabrication services such as i.materialise (a Belgian company founded in 1990) and Sculpteo (a Paris-based service founded in 2009) provide on-demand 3-D printing and laser cutting in small volumes and at rates that are affordable to individuals. Customers upload a digital design and receive the corresponding physical object by mail a few days later. Ponoko (a New Zealand startup founded in 2007) and Shapeways (a Netherlands-based spin-off of Philips Electronics) go one step farther: They are supply chain management tools for garage inventors, enabling creators to exchange plans and instructions, coordinate production, and sell their designs and fabricated objects directly to the public.
Complementing these businesses are open repositories like Thingiverse, a website created and managed by MakerBot, a New York–based manufacturer of 3-D printers that was founded in 2009. At Thingiverse, people can freely download one another’s designs and programming code for such ubiquitous products as gears, bottle openers, and coat hooks. Distributed manufacturing networks like Makerfactory and 100kGarages enable the communities further by connecting digital fabricators with potential customers, allowing customers to post job requests that are then bid on by individual fabricators. There are also successful new small enterprises using digital fabrication to make customizable iPhone accessories (Glif), jewelry (Nervous System), cases for prosthetic limbs (Bespoke), and other products such as kitchenware, toys, and furniture. They generally make their goods on demand, with short production runs, catering to both local and global markets.