A Strategist’s Guide to Digital Fabrication
A few months ago, Strategy + Business commissioned Tom Igoe and I to write an article on the democratization of manufacturing. The intro is transcribed below. The complete article is available at the S+B website (requires registration but it’s free) and as a PDF (no registration required).
Rapid advances in manufacturing technology point the way toward a decentralized, more customer-centric “maker” culture. Here are the changes to consider before this innovation takes hold.
At a research meeting in late 2010, a primatologist studying monkey genetics took a tour of a university’s digital fabrication shop. She mentioned that her field research had stalled because a specialized plastic comb, used in DNA analysis of organic samples, had broken. The primatologist had exhausted her research budget and couldn’t afford a new one, but she happened to be carrying the old comb with her. One of the students in the shop, an architect by training, asked to borrow it. He captured its outline with a desktop scanner, and took a piece of scrap acrylic from a shelf. Booting up a laptop attached to a laser cutter, he casually asked, “How many do you want?”
This question is central to most manufacturing business models. Ten units of a comb — or an automobile component, a book, a toy, or any industrially produced item — typically cost a lot more per unit to produce than 10,000 would. The price per unit goes down even more if you make 100,000, and much more if you make 10 million. But what happens to conventional manufacturing business models, or to the very concept of economies of scale, when millions of manufactured items are made, sold, and distributed one unit at a time? We’re about to find out.
The rapidly evolving field of digital fabrication, which was barely known to most business strategists as recently as early 2010, is beginning to do to manufacturing what the Internet has done to information-based goods and services. Just as video went from a handful of broadcast networks to millions of producers on YouTube within a decade, and music went from record companies to GarageBand and Bandcamp.com, a transition from centralized production to a “maker culture” of dispersed manufacturing innovation is under way today. Millions of customers consume manufactured goods, and now a small but growing number are producing, designing, and marketing them as well. As operations, product development, and distribution processes evolve under the influence of this new disruptive technology, manufacturing innovation will further expand from the chief technology officer’s purview to that of the consumer, with potentially enormous impact on the business models of today’s manufacturers.