Traditional manufacturing could one day morph into a distributed manufacturing model. Thanks to the latest advancements in additive manufacturing and online collaboration, today’s startups are embracing the concept for localized, customized, and decentralized manufacturing.
We’ve all been acclimated to post-industrial revolution manufacturing. Company A has a design they would like to produce and mass market. Company B just so happens to specialize in turning A’s design into a reality. Resources are accumulated, staff is trained, and machinery is re-tooled for new manufacturing. Company A and B now share a direct symbiotic relationship with one another. However, there are caveats.
The ebb and flow of production, distribution, and sales are now joined at the hip. Raw materials are purchased in bulk, guarantees are made, and risk factors increase. A given volume of product must be manufactured according to demand, forecasts are committed, and a given number of product must be sold in order for A or B to stay profitable.
Distributed manufacturing decentralizes traditional manufacturing and takes supply chain strategies to a new level like never before. Backed by the internet, we’re no longer bound by the geography of a single factory, designer, or distributor. A smaller volume of parts can be made on a cheaper scale when compared to traditional high-volume manufacturing. Apart from the benefits of working with localized specialty manufacturers, the real prize is extensive customization for products that was not economically feasible in the past for high-volume manufacturing. Whereas traditional manufacturing is usually bound to a linear approach in its design, tooling, and methods, a distributed model allows for specialized manufacturers, 21st century craftsman, and sellers with particular talents to focus on what they do best while sustaining profitability in globally competitive markets.
In our brave new world, Company A can now design, produce, and assemble a new wristwatch line that offers a profound level of customization for their users. Leveraging the power of the internet, they hire local designers who focus on this industry and offer the talents necessary to create their vision. Those new designs are sent to local 3D printers, desktop CNC routers, or prototyping specialists that are not only geographically closer to home, but also offer various design and manufacturing capabilities. With the synchronicity of an orchestra, Company A acts as the conductor, bringing parts and supplies together for production like never before.
With online collaboration, the entire watch assembly can be procured and produced on a localized level. At one zip code, the watch bands are made to order. In another, the dial buttons are customized according to the end-user’s needs. The supply chain leads back to Company A for final assembly and customization, then shipped directly to customers, retailers, or distributors. With distributed manufacturing, there’s no need to anticipate a bulk volume shipment of watchbands arriving from a single-focused mass producer halfway around the world. Using decentralized services that focus on watchmaking, you’re leveraging a diverse range of custom bands from a defined network of specialty providers geographically closer to home.
In this brave new world, supply chains are redefined thanks to a combination of specialized additive manufacturing technologies, open source movements, and online collaboration. From small independent makers to enterprises, key advantages are taking shape:
Less capital investment risk
Since you now have a decentralized manufacturing base with multiple capabilities to choose from, you depend less on permanent investment for manufacturing equipment and tooling. Using online collaboration, easily search for and acquire the services of a low volume specialty producer to fabricate the parts you need according to your custom specifications. In addition, it helps your company insulate itself from the burden of unused equipment and employee costs should business slow or experience market downturns.
Increased use of open source and/or free collaboration tools
Open source and/or free distributed manufacturing applications help link designers, inventors, micro-fabricators, and low-volume factories in revolutionizing their sourcing strategy. In addition, the world of licensing costs for applications and program interoperability become minimized. Open source tools provide the necessary infrastructure that can allow small or large scale manufacturers to compete with versatile and agile operation. Tools like SyncFAB and BOTQueue are already beginning to rise in popularity with open distributed manufacturing.
Energy and raw material savings also play a substantial role. Traditional manufacturing (subtractive manufacturing) requires the removal of raw material during production. To achieve the desired part, multiple runs with different equipment is required. With 3D printing, that same object could be produced in a single production run with a single machine, resulting in near-net shape manufacturing. Near-net shape manufacturing is the production of a product without requiring substantial equipment operation, raw material removal, and finishing. Substantial savings in energy, material waste, and logistics make distributed manufacturing a compelling advantage in business.
Diverse choices in design and manufacturing talent
Online collaboration is a force multiplier for your existing talent base. With distributed manufacturing, easily choose the best designer, specialist, or craftsman to work with online. You’re no longer bound by the talent of one particular company that may only offer broad capabilities instead of specific specialties. You’ll be able to choose a local manufacturer with a niche, helping your design exceed in performance, reliability, and aesthetics.
For example, working with a localized manufacturer that specifically focuses on unique, “made-to-order”, rubber watch bands equates the necessary skillset and design experience for your target market. This is an enormous competitive advantage when compared to using a manufacturer half way around the world who produces a broad range of rubberized products. AtFAB, for example, is a furniture design shop that not only sells their own products, but also provides the plans to download for free. These designs can be sent to any CNC router for customization.
Lower costs of production and increased productivity
Since additive manufacturing means near-net shape objects with minimal raw materials expended, additional costs are observed. The energy costs, time, and output for running a single 3D printer or custom CNC machine compared to multiple manufacturing runs for a single object is dramatic. Working with geographically independent manufacturers also helps streamline distribution and production.
Enhanced logistics and time-savings
By working with local specialty manufacturers in a decentralized network of providers, transportation costs are lower when compared to working with a company overseas. By utilizing and combining local specialty manufacturers, easily speed up your product’s time to market.
Less need to anticipate production volume
Using distributed manufacturing also means having a better handle on anticipating your stock, raw materials, and inventory. Coupled with intelligent supply chain management, you have greater flexibility in producing products according to demand.
No middlemen or markups
Getting your product created using distributed manufacturing means you avoid middlemen and reduce the risk of markup costs for having your part originate in one end of the world and finally arriving at your door for assembly.
Economic development improvements for geographically difficult areas
In only a few years since the acceleration of 3D printing, designers across the globe have provided advancements for low income or economically devastated areas. For example, prosthetic limbs, once expensive to produce and transport to remote or war-torn areas, are now produced on the fly locally at dramatically less cost when compared to sourcing from a direct manufacturer thousands of miles away. This is also true for 3D-Ponics, a non-profit organization dedicated to distributed manufacturing for building efficient and affordable hydroponic gardens.
Strengthening local economies
Small towns and cities ravaged by the effects of globalization and outsourced manufacturing can now produce parts or assembles using the distributed manufacturing model using less capital than ever before. Local designers, entrepreneurs, micro-fabricators, and logistics companies will be able to enhance their bottom line and help job growth.
Increase time to market for your product
Utilize distributed manufacturing by working with lean, versatile, and local micro-fabricators for low volume production runs at greater speeds than ever before. Communication is streamlined via online collaboration, sudden design changes are flexible and insulated, and custom products are produced faster.
Let the enlightenment begin
Distributed manufacturing is already prominent in the areas of automotive production and some complex consumer goods used in enterprise businesses. For niche, custom, or low volume product runs, distributed manufacturing will certainly have a significant on impact traditional manufacturing. While additional hurdles remain, decentralization will become a key strategy moving forward, especially for 3D printer shops, low-volume micro-factories, and niche design studios. A new industrial renaissance is forming and it will certainly change the way we think about how we achieve perfect “Zen” in supply chain strategies.