|Factor of the Future: 3D Rapid Prototyping|
So you think that the factory of the future is a fully-automated building filled with 3D printing systems and intelligent software? You think the factory resembles a Kinko's rather than a factory where "toner" and "paper" (raw materials) go into the system and a massive stream of customized products comes out. It is an incredibly efficient concept for sure, one with virtually zero waste. Software and hardware seamlessly handle everything from decisions on what to make and when to make it. Still other software makes decisions that ensure the entire system stays on track to get you whatever you ordered on time and for the best price.There is no dirt on the floor and employees wear shorts an Polo shirts while they attend to the items made by the system and destined for your house.
The scenario painted above is not an exaggeration at all. Its a reality of technology being developed today by a handful of technology start-ups with ambitious dreams of a digital fabrication future.3D printers have been around for the past 20-25 years, quietly improving their capabilities which for the most part have only become mainstream in the past 5 years. The factory-of-the-future is visible in a hot new trend in the techno-dweeb sphere, so-called 3D Printing. These machines literally ‘print’ from computer images entire finished parts or simple products, ‘assembling’ from raw metal powders using powerful lasers or electron beams. They work much the same way much your computer’s laser printer does, though in the latter case using much less powerful lasers to print text using powdered inks. One guy, a computer, and a 3D ‘printer’ … presto a desktop factory. More on this incredible technology in a minute.
This new trend of distributed manufacturing is something that worries all of the big players and even countries like China. While economic historians remind us of the importance of the twin innovations of free markets and financial structures, both those factors pale against the power of technology to create productivity, and thus the wealth of the world.
If the future factory is a machine born of emerging technologies and requires zero labor, on average such factories will be located preferentially where the skills and culture exist to invent and implement. And, on average, you’d put such factories close to demand. The U.S. still has more of both innovation and GDP than any other nation in the world, and will for some time. (The “on average” necessarily assumes roughly equal tax and regulatory treatment, and roughly equal cost of capital.)
That technology adds productivity – more output using fewer labor hours – is an old story. But this means, in a narrow sense, technology eliminates jobs even as it creates broader societal wealth. We’ve seen this in America where total manufacturing output has doubled in the last thirty years while the manufacturing labor force dropped from 17 million in the mid ‘70s to 12 million today. Each worker today is thus six times more productive. Overall this is a very good thing for America, but not so good on the face of it for the five million no longer directly employed in manufacturing.
Now back to the " One guy, a computer, and a 3D ‘printer’"...there are more 3D printers on the planet than anyone realizes. Many of them exist in someone's garage. Some people have a few machines in a small business. There are only a handful of very large printing facilities on the planet and they are outnumbered 10 to one by smaller, more efficient businesses with virtually no overhead.
But what about the quality? Ah, the question that is actually has the simplest answer of all. If you were to send a report to a Kinko's in say...New York, wouldn't you expect that the results would be the same if you sent the same report to a Kinko's in Sunny California? This same reasoning holds true for 3D printing. The quality is essentially built into the 3D printer itself. Since no human touches it during fabrication, what comes from one printer in a particular city will precisely resemble an item made on the same printer in another city half way around the world.
The software that powers Kraftwurx is at the heart of this digital future. Its a mass-customization and manufacturing Knockout wrapped in a warm fuzzy that does not have a downside except for the big guys like China. 3D printer manufacturers want to sell more printers. Bureaus (the name used to describe a shop with the 3D printers), want to keep their machines busy. Creative individuals and entrepreneurs want the ability to quickly bring products to market and earn a buck. The environmentalists want us to use less fossil fuels and technology geeks want really, really cool jobs!
Digital Factory™ powers Kraftwurx. Its a software solution from Digital Reality that essentially makes all the warm fuzzy. The company has combined a lot of technologies that were once barely interconnected into a beautiful and productive thing for making products for consumers worldwide. Digital Factory™ is likely less known than some of the other players in the emerging trend of democratized manufacturing but the may hold the Ace of Spades, a 2006 Patent Filing titled Made-To-Order Digital Manufacturing Enterprise which they call Digital Factory™ claims to package everything necessary into a commercial software system that goes on sale in 2012.