For those of us who make things for a living, we live a daily pardox in that most of our making actually involves subtracting. That gorgeous MacBook Air you covet? It was made subtractively: lots of perfectly good aluminum was machined away to achieve its seductive form. Unfortunately, many of the miraculous fixes surgeons create actually involve taking out living material, and either setting up a workaround using existing components, or placing in a replacement part — like an artificial hip — which was probably made subtractively, too. Even a quotidien net-shape process like thermoplastic injection molding requires the creation of complex metal molds, which are also usually made via subtractive processes, all of which are quite laborious and time consuming.
We're on the cusp of a significant shift in manufacturing techniques which has been several decades in the making. As a newly minted engineer back in the early 90's, I started using 3D CAD software to drive stereolithography machines which gave me rough samples of the parts I was designing for ink jet printers. Stereolithography was an early form of "additive" manufacturing, where you build up the thing you desire layer by layer, drip by drip, or atom by atom. Though the parts weren't very functional, they were a great alternative to asking someone to machine out your impossible shape (I was very good then at creating impossible shapes…). What's cool today is that variants of the same ink jet technology I was developing then can now be used to print out… kidneys. Or bikes. And urethras. Or even plastic injection molds. And going forward, potentially just about anything we can dream up. For me, I think this shift in manufacturing paradigm will be driven by three major developments in the art and science of making stuff:
1. Cost-effective production of complex composite forms and structures
Save for their motors and wheels, modern Formula 1 cars are made almost completely out of a variety of composite materials. As you can see from the crash sequence above (which the driver Mark Webber walked away from), composite materials combine light weight with very high strength. The composite tub which Webber sits in stayed intact throughout this accident. He is also wearing an advanced, lightweight helmet made out of composites. And his head is kept attached to his torso by a composite yoke sitting on his shoulders. However, the manufacturing techniques used to create all of these parts are slow and expensive. To date, the use of composite materials in mass consumer offerings has been limited to things like tennis raquets and golf clubs, where the forms and structures were fairly simple and the market was willing to pay a premium for performance. Boeing is about to ship the Dreamliner, whose fuselage and wings are made out of composites. Cost-effective, lightweight composites would be a boon to the automotive world, enabling us to create much more energy efficient cars which maintain or increase levels of active and passive safety over today's metallic structures. The good news here is that several organizations are pioneering manufacturing techniques which radically lower the price of composite structures. Gordon Murray's design firm has created the iStream manufacturing process, which combines steel structures with a fast composite manufacturing techniques to create a cheap, lightweight stucture for vehicles. And McLaren, ever an innovator, is just about to ship its amazing MP4-12C road car, which uses a cost-effective molded carbon fiber tub as its main structural element. Here is a technical analysis of that car, and here is an overview of the state of the art in structural composites by Gordon Murray himself. As more of these manufacturing techniques come into the mainstream, we'll see composites in more and more products. Significantly, these processes also have the potential to significantly reduce the physical footprint required to make things, and they can also skinny down the capital structure required to be a manufacturer. More on that in the next section.
2. Additive manufacturing of technical nutrients
By this title, I refer to the process of building up structures by depositing incremental bits of "man-made" materials until a whole is formed. This is in contrast to traditional manufacturing techniques, where material is slowly stripped away, Michelangelo-like, until the desired form is achieved. For more information on this, rather than attempt to duplicate a wonderful piece of journalism, I'd like to point you to 3D printing: The printed world, an article from The Economist. For both both noobie and expert alike, this article provides a great survey of techniques and applications being developed all over the world. If you're an engineer like me, the prospect of being able to additively manufacturing a titanium spar inside of a fully-formed carbon fiber wing is truly inspiring. On the other hand, if you are a business model hacker like me, you'll also find the following Economist observation pretty mind-blowing:
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of additive manufacturing is that it lowers the cost of entry into the business of making things. Instead of finding the money to set up a factory or asking a mass-producer at home (or in another country) to make something for you, 3D printers will offer a cheaper, less risky route to the market. An entrepreneur could run off one or two samples with a 3D printer to see if his idea works. He could make a few more to see if they sell, and take in design changes that buyers ask for. If things go really well, he could scale up—with conventional mass production or an enormous 3D print run.
This suggests that success in manufacturing will depend less on scale and more on the quality of ideas. Brilliance alone, though, will not be enough. Good ideas can be copied even more rapidly with 3D printing, so battles over intellectual property may become even more intense. It will be easier for imitators as well as innovators to get goods to market fast. Competitive advantages may thus be shorter-lived than ever before. As with past industrial revolutions, the greatest beneficiaries may not be companies but their customers. But whoever gains most, revolution may not be too strong a word.
If you could make world-class titanium parts in your backyard studio, would you? I might. If you are GM, and you can start replacing huge buildings built to house humongous steel panel stamping presses with robotic cells which build up parts additively, would you? I believe the capital efficiencies offered by these new technologies will be irresistable, and will transform the notion of "factory" to be something much smaller, more nimble, and more similar to the low mass organization we've seen develop to support many of the leading Web 2.0 brands. I saw an inkling of this eight years ago, when I visited the Pagani factory in Italy. At that point in time, they were not using additive manufacturing, but they were building all of their parts (save for the engine and some assorted metallic suspension pieces) inhouse using carbon composite manufacturing techniques. Here's what I wrote about that visit:
Located a short drive outside of Bologna, Pagani sits but a stone's throw from the headquarters of Ferrari and Lamborghini — part of the high performance internal combustion industry cluster that's existed in Emilia-Romagna since the 1920's. The factory is very compact and sits, almost invisible, in a quiet suburban neighborhood. It is divided into three main areas, each sitting side-by-side: a carbon fiber fabrication area with several autoclaves, an assembly area (big enough to fit three cars on jack stands) and an entrance lobby/museum. The design offices sit above the museum, and the entire facility oozes quality and attention to detail, as do the fabulous cars that roll out the front door.
Three tiny buildings creating complete cars. A factory complex so small I drove by it at least five times, finally resorting to begging two mechanics in a garage fixing an old Fiat 500 to point me in the right direction. That's a big revolution in capital structure, and I believe it will signal the birth of many small, leightweight, easier-to-start-up entrepreneurial manufacturing firms. Our industrial landscape may return to looking much like that of over a century ago, with as many exciting mechanical startups flourishing as we now have software startups. By the way, the illustration above is also from — you guessed it — Gordon Murray.
3. Additive manufacturing of biological nutrients
Here I refer to the process of building up structures by depositing incremental bits of "natural" materials until a whole is formed. Or it may mean creating a scaffolding out of man-made or biomaterials, and then injecting that scaffolding with living cells so that it can grow to become a liver, or a urethra, or a bladder, or a kidney. Since showing is better than telling, please give yourself 17 minutes to watch the following TED video — it will blow your mind and may change the way you approach your work:
If you can't spare the time for the entire video, at least forward to the 10 minute mark in the video, and check it out. Amazing. By the way, this type of manufacturing approach will also change the business structures of many of the organ replacement systems we have in place today. Contrast the complex supply chains we've created to harvest viable organs from donors, find a suitable recipient, and then transport and implant the donation. Aside from reducing the human misery and suffering accrued (which cannot be measured in dollars), imagine what happens when Stanford Hospital has an organ printing center in the basement.
This shift in our manufacturing paradigm will be enabled cheap, lightweight structures, built-up physical products, and custom-printed biologic offerings. In summary, this is just my attempt to synthesize for myself what may be happening across these trends. The technological possibilities are fabulous. The business implications are intriguing and even inspiring. The societal implications are simultaneously energizing and troubling. Let's see where things go, and I'd love to hear what you think.