Toward the end of Sound City, Dave Grohl’s new documentary about the famous LA recording studio, Mick Fleetwood laments the technological advances that have changed the face of music production, leading people to believe they can do it all on their own. People are much happier, Fleetwood contends, when we work with others.

The manufacturing industry could be on the verge of the same conundrum with the advent of 3D printing. There’s been a drastic shift in manufacturing since the start of the last century – companies did their own design and manufacturing and on occasion raw production – their furthest supplier was probably on the other side of town, not the other side of the world. Over the past few decades global supply chains became a necessity.

Now we are in the midst of a formidable “onshoring” movement bringing manufacturing back to North America.  But why? The most common reasons we hear are:

  • Closer team collaboration between design, marketing, and manufacturing
  • Reduction in supply networks’ lead times
  • Better design integration by reducing cycle times when introducing new designs
  • Ability to adapt to consumers’ demands for constantly-evolving products
  • Quality of relationships as well as closer collaboration between end-consumer (B2B or B2C) and manufacturing

So what part will 3D printing have in all of this? If 3D printing is going to become a broadly-accepted method of manufacturing consumer-ready products, in what industries would it fit? The logical answer (based on the current state of the technology) would seem to be smaller runs of custom designs where personalization would eventually lead to batch sizes of one.  Then, as design engineers start to get comfortable with the flexibility that 3D printing provides, they will design products that require components that can only be 3D printed, essentially integrating theoretical design with production engineering in sporting goods, medicine, aerospace and defense (of course) but also into consumer good, heavy machinery, and everyday objects.  In fact, there are already directories online of ready-to-customize then ready-to-print 3D files.

So as 3D printing allows shorter manufacturing lead times (think minutes, not weeks or even days), 3D printers will also be utilized throughout the supply chain.  It’s not just for the designer of the end product, but imagine a global supply network where every supplier has a 3D printer that the designer can “print” to at any time. It’s almost Star Trek’s replicators.  

Integrate that concept back into the heart of PLM and vendors can only get on the approved list if they have a compatible 3D printer of sufficient quality that it can be commandeered to print products at will whether in resin/plastic or even metal. This really enables not just a global network of supply – but more importantly, a global design network, bringing design expertise from all over the world right to your doorstep, or at least to the corner of your desk.

At the recent NetSuite SuiteWorld event, NetSuite and Autodesk presented the future of modern manufacturing leveraging our respective, cloud-based products showcasing the possibility in a brief demo, redesigning a product based on customer feedback and cost analysis, through crowd sourcing with consumers voting on designs using a 3D model.

But what if we took that a step further and 3D printed a short run of prototype products for in-store display? The general public is much more likely to become engaged in a product / process where they can see, touch, feel the end product – and not just see it on a website.

We’re not going to see 3D printers replace lathes, mills, welding machines and presses anytime soon, certainly not for volume production. But 3D printing is changing the face of collaborative design and manufacturing process, shrinking lead times, creating previously impossible to manufacture products, and leading to mass personalization. Imagine mass manufacturing in batch sizes of one.  As the technology evolves and the material options broaden they will most definitely be more integrated into traditional manufacturing processes – imagine bearings printed with “Buckyballs” embedded in the race tracks in a variety of sizes depending on the application, or engine exhaust manifolds printed and not cast.

As a new breed of manufacturing and design engineers graduate gain experience with the flexibility and control that 3D printing provides, you can be sure they will be transforming not just design but the very objects we use in our business and personal lives. Take a quick look around you at some of the everyday objects as you read this and ask yourself,
can that be printed? I’m guessing a good percentage of them could be. And for those that can’t – there’s someone going to be asking why, and looking for a way to change that.

- Gavin Davidson, CDDP | Vertical Market Expert - Manufacturing