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 about what excites me 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.

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 relatively 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.