If you follow the manufacturing space, you’ve probably heard that the industry is undergoing a significant change, accompanied by terms like “New Industrial Revolution”, “Third Industrial Revolution”, “Manufacturing 3.0” and “Maker Movement”.
We should ask, ‘What does this change actually mean for consumers?’
The new industrial revolution will have an overwhelmingly positive impact on consumer experience by allowing more customers to get what they want, when they want it and at a price they’re willing to pay. Today, no product is too quirky, offbeat, personalized or complicated to be brought to market.
Consumers can obtain these through ways like purchasing them from one of the small, agile manufacturing companies that have emerged to address customers with niche requirements. These companies have targeted customers who want a more personalized product and are willing to pay a premium for it.
Alternately, consumers can now invest in products they want by directly supporting projects in crowd-funding places like Kickstarter or Indiegogo. Crowdsourcing is also another channel for fresh ideas to become reality, with the added benefit of improving the quality of designs through cross-disciplinary collaboration and by gathering early feedback. These ideas also play nicely into the thought of Distributed Manufacturing.
The Rise of 3D Printing as the Driver of the Democratization of Manufacturing
3D-printing allows consumers to turn highly individualized concepts or designs into real-life products via a “personal manufacturing” process. As 3D-printing services and consumer devices become more affordable and ubiquitous, companies will start making digital versions of their products and parts available. Consumers will be able to download, modify and print these digital versions directly.
While this process is still not mainstream, the value proposition for both consumers and manufacturers is too compelling for this to not happen.
This new industrial revolution wouldn’t be possible without an elaborate ecosystem of groups who all play an important role.
Makers’ Roles in the Democratization of Manufacturing
Makers and “Maker Culture” are at the heart of this revolution. When we hear about hot trends such as “democratization of manufacturing”, “3D printing”, “maker spaces” and “DIY movement”, it is the “makers” who first come to mind. This is the newly empowered group: born and raised in the Internet age, comfortable dealing with digital information and possessing different attitudes towards sharing knowledge and the use of computers and software. They may use freely available tools such as SketchUp, FreeCAD, 123D Design or Tinkercad to create their designs, share them in GrabCAD or Thingiverse, and send them to online services such as Shapeways, Scuplteo and Ponoko to print them.
They tinker with manufacturing equipment at TechShop. They freely share and leverage IP from open-source resources such as Arduino, Quirky’s Inspiration Platform, Adafruit, Raspberry Pi, Willow Garage or RepRap. They do all this not for money, but for fun, or simply to create something for personal use.
Entrepreneurs’ Roles in the Democratization of Manufacturing
There have always been entrepreneurs in the manufacturing space. The big difference though is that the barriers of entry have been lowered, enabling more individuals to design, fund, produce and market their own inventions in this democratization of manufacturing movement.
Some in the entrepreneur group probably still use the same design tools available to makers, but may also start investing in commercial-grade software tools on a subscription basis (as offered by Autodesk Subscription) and pay-as-you-go cloud services (such as Autodesk Fusion 360, Autodesk SIM 360, Autodesk PLM 360) to create and analyze their designs.
They may rent space and equipment to prototype and develop their ideas at places like TechShop in the US or Makers’ Base in Japan.
Established Companies’ Roles in the Democratization of Manufacturing
Established companies enjoy access to resources and in-house experts bound by confidentiality agreements and remain loyal to their company. They have best practices, proven processes, an established customer base that trusts them and commercialization channels.
For this group, the new democratization of manufacturing may appear somewhat unclear. But the fact that an entirely new group of motivated and smart individuals is now empowered to do some “serious” engineering could be beneficial to everyone.
Companies are also burdened by inertia, inflexibility, bureaucracy, politics and silos. If done correctly, developing an ability to tap into this new creative force may actually be good for business, as it may address some of the company’s shortcomings. The combination of company “muscle” and the new entrepreneurs’ agility and creativity, may in fact be quite magical.
Enabling companies’ Roles In the Democratization of Manufacturing
A group of “enabling companies” are also providing crucial infrastructure for the democratization of manufacturing. This broad category includes socially-developed product companies that connect inventors and influencers in innovation communities and then act as moderators in the idea development process. Quirky is a well-known example of this type of company.
Crowdsourcing hosts organize challenges on behalf of companies crowdsourcing their designs. (Think: GE’s jet engine bracket design challenge or DARPA’s “Fast Adaptable Next-Generation Ground Vehicle” (FANG) design competition).
The ‘enabling companies’ category includes cloud-based application providers which offer engineering applications (such as the 360 line of cloud applications from Autodesk) on a pay-per-use basis, enabling companies of any size to access sophisticated engineering software without large initial investments and without the need for support from in-house IT infrastructure.
Makerspaces are the main contributors to the democratization of manufacturing. These are places like TechShop, ADX, Fablab, and Artisan’s Asylum that provide facilities, equipment and training to the general public; allowing inventors to develop and prototype their ideas.
Conclusion on the Democratization of Manufacturing
The democratization of manufacturing is real and it is touching many people’s lives in positive ways.
Manufacturing is being democratized — products are no longer the sole province of big, established corporations. Anyone with talent, passion and an internet connection can become a serious contender.
This is great news, not just for consumers, but for the products themselves. When creativity and choice are allowed to flourish, everyone wins.