Where we manufacture and the impact of 3D printing

In my series on the impact of 3D printing, I wrote about my views of the impact on supply chain and product design. In today’s post, I write about manufacturing locations. This topic has already been partly covered in the post about supply chain, but I think there is more to say about it.

Manufacturing takes places all over the world. But the bulk of our manufacturing takes place in Asia. I expect that 3D printing has the opportunity to change that. 3D printing offers benefits over mass production like:

  • one-off and small series production
  • multiple products coming out of the same production line
  • semi automated production lines
  • smaller factory footprint because of all the above.

Looking at these benefits, I see new directions for manufacturing, which have an impact on the location where production will take place. The directions I see are:

  • manufacturing closer to major markets — in essence bring manufacturing back to the West localized production near large population concentrations
  • insourcing of production by non manufacturing companies
  • around the corner production (Kinko concept)
  • home manufacturing (home printers)

Manufacturing closer to major markets
We produce in Asia because it is cheaper to manufacture overseas and ship it back to us than to produce it locally. Now this concept works great for mass-produced goods, but with 3D printing it may change. With lowering prices of 3D printing equipment and materials, it can tip the balance and make localized production possible.

Localized production near large population concentrations
Given the above, it makes more sense to move production closer to large cities or near central distribution hubs similar to warehouses of big retailers like Amazon. I can even imagine that some production will take place inside those existing warehouses.

Insourcing of production by non manufacturing companies
Beyond making production local, certain companies or organization can start producing themselves. The benefits to be able to produce on demand on-site can in certain cases very compelling. For example, a hospital which needs specialized tools for operations or tailor-made items for patients. Or car shops who need to special parts to repair a car. In these cases, it saves time, costs and inventory to have produce them in house.

Around-the-corner production (Kinko concept)
When 3D printers become more capable and their use more ubiquitous, the next step is to go hyper local. Local shops in convenient locations (a la Kinkos) open and offer local pickup and on-demand 3D printing options to businesses and consumer alike.

Home manufacturing (home printers)
And there is the option of home printers where consumers can print their own products at home.

There are considerations to take into account on how the future will unfolds itself. One consideration is the acceptance of customers of build-to-order products versus off-the-shelve products. Build-to-order offers freedom, but at the same time does not deliver instant gratification. Off-the-shelve delivers that instant gratification, but the customer is limited in choices. The other consideration is that the applicability of 3D printing is different in each product category. The applicability could be limited to shells or components for some, while others are completely manufactured using 3D printing.

There are many opportunities for 3D printing to have a major impact on the manufacturing locations of products. If you look at 2D printing business environment, I can imagine something similar for 3D printing. In 2D printing, you have many options to print. Each of these options is specialized in certain markets or services. But foremost they are complementary to each other. I expect nothing less for 3D printing.