Category Archives: On-Demand Manufacturing

Smart Factories

ONE OF THE HUGE OPPORTUNITIES for 3D printing and on-demand manufacturing is the ability to produce in series of one. To me that statement embodies the enormity of the impact of 3D printing on the world of manufacturing. But it also poses challenges and in this post I would like to discuss one of these challenges.

This challenge is how to run a factory when every item flowing through the production process is unique and has their own manufacturing requirements. The production of 10.000 similar items using the same or similar process steps is inherently less complex than producing 10.000 unique products each with their own production steps and requirements. The problem is that planning and tracking so many variations in the production process is too complex for a human – or humans.

In manufacturing or supporting processes like warehousing the focus tend to be on automating process steps to reduce labor costs, create more control, better – consistent – quality and increase capacity. But for on demand manufacturing this is not enough or even a solution. It is about the planning and control of the production process for a product. A factory producing 10.000 or more unique products a day is unique in the world. A new set of problems need to be solved and no readily available solution is available today. Or simply: nobody has done this before.

I envision factories of the future become more self thinking systems and knows their capabilities. Product blueprints enter on one side and finished products end up in the warehouse. The whole operation is run by computer systems and no human is part of the planning or process control.

To be clear humans are still needed. Certain steps are better handled by a human (refill / maintenance of machines or specific process steps like assembly or packing of parts – all depending on the factory setup and supported production steps), but the human is just a resource in the factory. A resource which can be planned and directed by a computer. It is not about fully automating the factory but about the creating a smart factory.

So how does this work? A product production request comes in. Based on the product production requirements a production plan is generated. The production plan contains each step necessary to produce each part and – if applicable – how the product is put together. The production of the product is scheduled based on capacity and necessary process steps. Not only the machine are planned but also human operators where needed. In the end the factory runs itself in the most optimal way based on the incoming production requests.

I like to call this concept the smart factory. I know this term is not unique and if you search on the internet you find many references to smart factories. Mostly related to energy-saving initiatives. But in my mind the smart factory can “think” for itself.

Next to 3D printing as a manufacturing technology, this step is necessary to make on demand manufacturing or manufacturing in series of one a reality. In my mind there is no other way to make it scale.

Manufacture. Use. Recycle. Repeat.

JUST IMAGINE an apartment, an apartment without any cabinets, closets or any other furniture to store things. The only things in the apartment are the things you use every day. Things like a couch, a table or a bed. In the bedroom there is single sliding door with a display next to it. On the display you can select the clothes you want. There is a convenient list of your favorites. You select a pair of jeans and a shirt. A subtle whirring comes from the behind the sliding door. After a few seconds the display says simply DONE and the sliding door unlocks. You open it and you take out items you just selected. They look and smell brand-new, no wrinkles, spotless exactly as they were the day you selected them. You did change the size somewhere along the way. Everybody gains a pound or two unfortunately when they get older.

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You put on your clothes and walk to the kitchen. The kitchen is brightly lit and white. Again no cupboards or cabinets. There is a display sitting on the counter. You simply select “breakfast – alone”. A few seconds later you take your coffee mug and plate from the only cabinet. You make breakfast and enjoy the coffee. After breakfast you deposit the plate and mug in the recycle bin. A ritual you repeat every day.

You might wonder what the point is of this story, but it is my vision for the future of on-demand manufacturing. In this story I want to illustrate how a huge change will impact our daily lives. It is about products becoming temporary. You make them when you need, you discard when you are done. This may sound awful from an environmental perspective, but if you combine this with recycling the net cost is only energy. Given that energy is available in abundance – we just do not know how to capture / convert it to something we can use – such a process can work.

This future seems very plausible to me. But if this future will become reality, how it impact us, companies, brands, designers and trends? Will they still exist? How will they make money? Will there still be trends? Will local design become more prevalent? I spend quite sometime thinking about these lately.

In the past I wrote that I do not believe in a 3D printer in every home. I still feel that way. The future I write about in this post, is beyond 3D printing technology we see today. Today’s 3D printers are noisy, smelly, slow, expensive, inaccurate and unreliable. Some day all of that is fixed. And hopefully they fix a few other things along the way as well. It does not have to be a Star Trek replicator. That is ok. But when that day comes, I hope this future is possible.

- Robert

2012 Wrap Up!

LIKE LAST YEAR I have made a list of the most popular posts on my blog. This year’s list is a bit different than last year’s. Last year’s list contained more technical posts while this year’s popular posts are more soft topics.

So Who Invented 3D Printing Anyway?

There is still lots of interest in who invented 3D printing. I am sure these are students writing a paper on 3D printing.

First 3D Printing Franchising Chain

Imprimate is still the only 3D printing franchising chain in existence as far as I know. I have not read much about them since then, and I wonder how well they are doing. They list only 4 locations on their site.

Impact of 3D Printing on Supply Chain

Next to the simplification of production processes, I think that supply chain is going to be one the major impacted areas by 3D printing. The ability of local production and the reduction of the necessary parts to make a product will change how supply chain will look like in the future. I find this one of the most exciting areas and cannot wait to see this into reality.

Value Creation in 3D Printing

There are so many opportunities in 3D printing and in this post I try to list the areas where those opportunities exist. I actually expect that 2013 is going to be interesting. 3D printing has gotten quite some attention the last 2 years and the collective mindshare on 3D printing has grown enormously. Although the media attention will probably go away – there is always a new thing to write about – I have high hopes that we will see some interesting startups and corporate initiatives in 2013.

Open Source SLS Printer Design Released

I have not seen much news about this printer. But it still a milestone. Nobody would have thought SLS was attainable within the hobby realm, and now it is. It is exciting to see bottom-up innovation pushing the boundaries of the existing players in the market. Hence also the reason why 3D Systems decided to go after Formlabs.

I wrote in total 53.610 words in all my 127 posts in 2 years. That is the size of a novel. I was actually a little stunned by that number.

Overall I think 2012 was the year that 3D printing hit mainstream mindshare. Larger and more well-known publications have been writing about 3D printing. It is also the year of the rise of new hobby 3D printers. I cannot remember seen so many announcements of projects and companies going to make or plan to introduce a hobby 3D printer.

It was a great year for 3D printing, and I cannot wait how 2013 will unfold.

Can Supply Chain Made Simpler With On-Demand Manufacturing?

ONE OF THE CHALLENGES for launching products by individual designers and small firms is to setup and manage their supply chain. In my post So You Have A Great Product Idea, What’s Next?, I wrote about launching a product from an idea is not easy. There are many things to take into account. Here, is a brief bullet-point summary of that post:

  • online fabrication services are useful, but cover only part of the process
  • a product needs to be assembled, finished and packaged before it is ready
  • order fulfillment and distribution is a lot of work and very repetitive
  • to get orders you need to have sales channels.

What I wanted to get across in that post is that beyond a product idea, to launch an actual product into the market is quite some work. You need to be prepared to contribute a significant amount of your time to bring a product to market.

That is looking at it from the individual designer perspective. For larger companies on-demand manufacturing gives opportunities to simplify their supply chain. I wrote about that in my post Impact of 3D Printing on Supply Chain.

One of the major challenges for individual and small companies for launching products is supply chain. To find, select and manage a small number of suppliers to manufacture and assemble your product is a challenge.

To get a product manufactured parts need to sourced. This could either be off-the-shelve parts or custom-manufactured parts. These parts are manufactured and shipped to the assembly point. At the assembly point, the product is put together, packaged and shipped. In each step of the manufacturing process, the reliability and quality of parts and product needs to be checked and monitored.

When the manufacturing and logistics of the product are setup, there are stock levels to monitor. The manufacturing of products overseas can take up to 6 weeks before the actual product arrives. The product designer needs to make choices on how much stock to keep and the size of production batches while taken into account the lead time of each of his suppliers.

Even for simple products like porcelain cups, this can be quite an undertaking.

It is a well-known secret that lots of product projects at Kickstarter fail just for that reason. Even though, the projects are successfully funded, the project owners can’t get the production up and running. It proves that many product designers just underestimate the amount effort necessary to setup and maintain a supply chain. According to a study done by professor Ethan Mollick 75% of technology and design-related projects at Kickstarter fail to deliver on time.

The interesting aspect is that every product designer / small firm is doing the same work and repeating the effort across markets and products. Even with the advent of on-demand manufacturing, the supply chain still exists and needs to be managed. The amount of effort the product designer needs to put in into the supply chain goes beyond the effort of designing the product itself.

There is an opportunity in the market for making supply chain simpler for product designers and small firms. There is a definite need for full-service manufacturing and logistic companies who take over the effort and let the product designer outsource the supply chain.

3D Printing Over Its Top?

IN AUGUST Gartner released their yearly report called Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies. 3D printing is part of this report for the last couple of years. This year Gartner’s analysts have positioned 3D printing at the peak of inflated expectations. It certainly feels as that 3D printed cannot be hyped more than it is today.

I can remember a few of the larger technology hypes of the past. At the end of 90s, ecommerce was definitely a hype. Online internet stores would be the end of all malls. Everybody and all goods would be ordered over the web. Ecommerce has gotten big, but it has made no real dent in physical retail. Tell me how many shopping malls have closed due to Amazon?

A little more specific example was the opening of the Amazon bookstore. The consensus was that all bookstores would fold. That never happened. Now Ebooks are actually causing bookstores to close.

Another one was open source software. The expectation was that open source software would replace all commercial software. Companies like Microsoft made it even their number 1 threat at the time. Today open software is indeed ubiquitous, but Microsoft still exists, kept its monopoly on desktop OS and office software and is doing financially quite well.

I can also vividly remember the hype on 3D on the web. In the late 90s, VRML was a definitely hype. According to mainstream media and experts 3D on the web would be the future. Everybody would browse and shop in 3D in a few years. Today we see a small revival of that hype with the introduction of WebGL. But 3D on the web is still not ubiquitous – and besides for some specific applications like games and visualizations – there is no real use of it on the web today.

To me, 3D printing is definitely overhyped. The media generally lacks details on the actual capabilities and performance of 3D printers. If you take those into account, the picture is much more sobering than how they would like to portray it.

3D printing is fundamentally interesting technology, and it will bring many advancements in manufacturing. I have written about this before, and I remain a huge believer in 3D printing. But it is not all what the media tries to make it.

Amazon’s Platform for Products

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about platforms – platforms on the internet. They form the basis of many prominent and successful internet service. When you can create a successful platform, it becomes part of the fabric of the internet. Platforms like Google, Facebook and Amazon provide, are excellent examples. If you turn one of them off today, it will have a substantial impact on the internet. Whenever Amazon’s AWS service is down, it has become a news item. That is how essential and powerful platforms can be. Any internet service which is not a platform can easily be disrupted by a newcomer. But platforms are services which will stay forever. In that context and for some other reasons, I have been looking into Amazon’s platform and their API stack recently.

When you are unfamiliar with the Amazon API stack, you will be amazed on the amount of APIs this company makes available to her users. It is truly a platform. I have read somewhere that Amazon is religious about using APIs between systems on their own network. That approach is called a Service Orientated Architecture or SOA for short. The powerful side effect of such an architecture, it is only normal to expose this ability to the outside world.

Here is a list of the powerful Amazon APIs for e-commerce:

  • Product Advertising API
  • Fulfillment Web Service (Amazon FWS)
  • Marketplace Web Service (Amazon MWS)

It allows companies to fully integrate their own systems with Amazon’s. Products can be fed and updated, order and sales information can be downloaded, fulfillment and inventory management of stock, etc. The opportunities to use Amazon’s sales platform are almost limitless. And it does not end here. Amazon offers more APIs for their other product categories. A complete list of their other APIs can be found at http://aws.amazon.com/products/.

In 2002, Jeff Bezos send around the following within Amazon. He realized that Amazon needed to be a platform to be grow and scale. He did not use the term Service Orientated Architecture, he did not care, he just wanted to move Amazon as a company in a certain direction. He summarizes it in 6 points:

  1. All teams will henceforth expose their data and functionality through service interfaces.
  2. Teams must communicate with each other through these interfaces.
  3. There will be no other form of interprocess communication allowed: no direct linking, no direct reads of another team’s data store, no shared-memory model, no backdoors whatsoever. The only communication allowed is via service interface calls over the network.
  4. It doesn’t matter what technology they use. HTTP, Corba, Pub-Sub, custom protocols — doesn’t matter. Bezos doesn’t care.
  5. All service interfaces, without exception, must be designed from the ground up to be externalizable. That is to say, the team must plan and design to be able to expose the interface to developers in the outside world. No exceptions.
  6. Anyone who doesn’t do this will be fired.

It is truly amazing, and it shows that Amazon is really a platform from the ground up. This interests me for two reasons:

  • ability to fully automate feeding products on Amazon’s marketplace and leverage their worldwide audience for selling products
  • options to leverage Amazon’s massive product inventory outside the realm of their own marketplace
  • visionary architecture of a true platform for products – be it either selling or creating

So You Have A Great Product Idea, What’s Next?

SO YOU have a great product idea? Even better, you are a gifted designer and can 3D design your own product. You design your product and have a copy made using one of the many online manufacturing options you have like Shapeways or Ponoko. In full anticipation, you wait until the package arrives and you can open it. The product is lovely, and you think it is great. You really would like to try to market your product. So where do you start?

While the last couple of years the options to make your own products and have them produced in small quantities have improved tremendously, but more is involved in launching a product into the market. A product needs to assembled and packaged. You select packaging and order it. You assemble the product and package it. Now you have inventory, and you would like to sell that inventory. So you reach out to shops and distributors and try to convince them to sell your product. If you are lucky they’ll bite immediately, but most of the time it takes time to get your products into a shop. Especially when you are a new designer. You can improve your “brand” by attending trade shows. This means booking a booth, and when the time comes set up the booth and be there a whole week to promote you and your products. Also, you would like to reach out to relevant magazines and plug your products to journalists. It is a great way to get your product into the spotlight.

If you are successful, you can ship your products to your customers. You keep inventory levels up to date and on regular intervals order new parts and assemble your product. Of course, you need to constantly manage the relationships with your suppliers and customers. They are the ones who keep your business going. You setup monthly calls with all of them. And of course there are prospective buyers so you add them too the call list.

Does this sound like a lot of work? Well it is. It is time you cannot spend to do what you love to (“design”) or have to (“work”) depending on where you are. And I have not gotten into the money aspect of it. You have to pay for your inventory. Your suppliers require money upfront or on delivery. Your customers pay only on delivery after 30 days or more. Of course if they do not pay on time, you have to chase them to get paid.

This is something to keep in mind when you are thinking about launching your own product. In my point of view, it is one of the issues with launching and scaling independent products and designers. The amount of time to actually bring a product into the market and launch it, is prohibitive for a lot of people. The current generation of online services in this area only partially covers that market and their level of support is often limited. To really launch a product much more is involved than what they can offer.

The Rise Of Accessible and Affordable Manufacturing Technology

THE LAST 5 YEARS I have been working in the 3D printing space. I have seen 3D printing rise in popularity. It went from a niche technology primarily used for prototyping applications to relatively well known manufacturing technology. You know that a technology is entering mainstream when publications like The Economist start writing about it. In a previous post called What Gets Me Excited About 3D Printing, I wrote that especially the digitization of manufacturing technology and the approach of building parts from the ground up are one of the most interesting aspects of 3D printing. It is a paradigm change in production, which is mostly still subtractive. Basically “beating the material into submission” to get what you need. In this post, I am revisiting that vision.

While watching the rise of hobbyist makers and independent designers / artists making their ideas, products and arts a physical reality, it becomes clear a new market is developing. This market could be described as one-off and small series of products developed by an army of independent designers. Their motivations are between solving a problem they have to the creation of new products or art forms.

The true innovation of which 3D printing is just a part lies in the fact that it enables people to make and manufacture products with relative ease. The setup costs are low, the design-to-manufacturing process is simple, and the manufacturing costs are low for small series. Anybody can basically do it. And it is not only limited to 3D printing. The same applies to laser cutting or CNC. On top of that, standard components of any kind – from charger ICs to lighting fixtures – can be easily bought off-the-shelf via a multitude of web sites.

(source: iFixit)

When taking a broader view, you could say this applies to manufacturing as a whole. Whereby standardized components can be used and integrated into other products to make new products. The manufacturing process is simplified for a lot of products. Even when you open a Macbook Air nowadays, it is wealth of standardized components. The integration and procurement of these components is still quite complex, but it is getting simpler over the years. It is not inconceivable that, at some point, any knowledgeable hobbyist is able to produce his or her own Macbook Air for a relative affordable price.

While manufacturing is getting simpler and more accessible, the true innovation of products will be in design and manufacturing of the components itself. The design and production of computer chips is a good example of components, which are not easy to design and manufacture – let alone customize. But at the same time mass-production does commoditize these components and they are available to all to buy and use. Remember how many people buy their own computer components and assemble their own computer?

I expect that integration and design of products will be further commoditized over the years. The same applies to software. The first shimmers of this change are starting to appear on the internet. Hardware startups are becoming more common. Pure hardware products pop up on a daily basis on Kickstarter. It is no longer the exclusive domain of large corporations. There is a huge opportunity developing here to enable product designers, hobbyists and entrepreneurs to design and sell their products.