This change is likely to translate into greater levels of product and process innovation. Von Hippel notes that “users were the developers of about 80 percent of the most important scientific instrument innovations, and also the developers of most of the major innovations in semiconductor processing.” And it will make supply chains more robust: As small shops and home shops come online and share information, networks of vendors grow more dense, more diverse, and less dependent on any one supplier or region.
Lessons for Large Manufacturers
Any disruptive innovation requires changes in basic operating practices, and digital fabrication is no exception. For example, many large manufacturers have separated high-expense “creative” or “innovative” R&D from low-cost production processes. But in the maker community, those two practices are merging again. The changes to come will accelerate moves that some leading manufacturers are already making: toward open source innovation, flexible production, and knowledge-intensive production lines. If you are a mainstream manufacturer intending to become a leader in this new environment, here are some directions worth considering.
• Prepare now for the capabilities you’ll need when some of your products are digitally fabricated. As early as 2020, every auto dealership and home improvement retailer may have a backroom production shop printing out parts and tools as needed. Manufacturers that figure out how to make their wares out of printable composites, investing now in the requisite changes in materials, could have a considerable advantage.
One way to gain skills and experience is to participate in fabrication-oriented supply chain networks, leasing out excess capacity to smaller manufacturers or startups or using those customers to diversify your existing business. SparkFun has done this for clients that want small numbers of custom-printed circuit boards, spinning off a business called BatchPCB.com, which aggregates small circuit-board jobs into larger batches for mass production. For the end customer, it means waiting a few more days for the board, but at a drastically reduced price.
Experience suggests that your own company’s capabilities will improve when your employees get their hands on the tools of fabrication. For the past 50 years, the separation of manufacturing from R&D has produced engineering graduates with too little hands-on manufacturing experience. Now that fabrication tools are increasingly driven by digital information, the two functions can work more closely together. Many factory-floor workers are already highly skilled at reading and interpreting design files and operating and maintaining machinery, and should be seen as allies in adapting shop processes to match new tools. As computer-controlled fabrication tools become more flexible and product runs become shorter, a typical factory worker might be making tripod handles in the morning and watchbands in the afternoon, and the gap between R&D and manufacturing will narrow.
• Establish a hybrid product line that mixes complementary mass-production and individual-production items. For some objects, digital fabrication will allow you to shorten product life cycles and make rapid improvements. Limor Fried, founder of Adafruit, notes that you can sell 2,000 of anything on the Internet with little effort. If you can finance development by planning a run that size, you can innovate at a profit. Digital fabrication tools make it easy to swap in new features, change the production line, or restart production of old products if demand resurfaces. In this environment, it’s helpful to think of product planning as designing a continuous information flow, rather than designing separately launched objects.
For other items, such as commonly used products, exploit the competitive advantage that scale provides. Whether it’s the mounting bolt used in all camera tripods, the USB cables that connect to more and more electronic devices, or the ubiquitous aluminum drink can, things that are universally compatible and consumed in large quantities will always be needed. Because standards hold a complex system together, they must be openly available, clearly defined, and changed only when necessary. This makes them good anchor products for large manufacturers that have capable supply chains.