The next manufacturing revolution has begun–and it’s being led by individuals, not multinational corporations.
The Industrial Revolution brought us mass manufacturing. Manufacturing 2.0 delivered high-tech automation that dramatically increased our productivity and enabled mass customization.
Today [individuals] can bring the capabilities that mass manufacturing allowed to a very small lot size. – John Rogers, Founder and CEO of Local Motors
The next manufacturing revolution is about empowering individuals with the same types of manufacturing capabilities that were once only available to large corporations.
The plummeting costs of manufacturing-related technologies (e.g., CAD software and 3D printers) has reached the point where this field is now accessible to the average person. It’s easier than ever to become a manufacturer.
Nature Mill Rises from Humble Beginnings
In the past, innovators and enthusiasts had to settle for assembling a kit. Today, they can be involved in everything from design to final assembly.
Take Russ Cohen, the CEO of Nature Mill. In true startup fashion, Cohen launched Nature Mill in his garage to make an automatic compost bin. In the beginning, Cohen built prototypes by hand using a metal bender and a jig. These prototypes offered his contract manufacturers a general idea of what to build, but were imprecise and resulted in re-engineering before production.
Fortunately, computer-aided design (CAD) software has become affordable and fairly easy to use. Cohen purchased the CAD program SolidWorks and taught himself to use it. According to Cohen, CAD has become a lot like Microsoft Excel in that “nearly anyone can use the basic functionality right away and learn the complex stuff as you go.” Cohen is now able to share exact engineering specs with his contract manufacturers, which eliminates guesswork and accelerates time-to-market.
To find contract manufacturers, Cohen uses the site Alibaba. In this forum, anyone can post CAD schematics for what they want built. Contract manufacturers willing to make it happen respond with a bid to take it from concept to product. As it turns out, tapping into a broader community to manufacture things is gaining in popularity.
Local Motors Creates a Manufacturing Community
Another instance of individuals taking manufacturing into their own hands is Local Motors, which produces crowdsourced cars. The Local Motors model is simple: people submit design prototypes and Local Motors helps build the best ones in a microfactory over a couple of weekends.
What’s fascinating is that anyone can submit their idea and get feedback from a community of engineers, car enthusiasts, industrial designers and fabricators. It could potentially transform automotive manufacturing from an industry that once required a multi-million (or billion) dollar investment to one that anyone with a passion for cars can tap into.
John Rogers, Founder and CEO of Local Motors, says that he started the company “to speed up the pace of technological innovation in the automotive industry.” But he also wanted to prove a point: everyday people can be manufacturers.
When I look at the technologies available today, I tend to agree.
Manufacturing Technologies at Our Fingertips
I’ve already highlighted several technologies that are giving people a shot at making their ideas a reality, but here’s a more comprehensive list:
- Crowdsourcing – Crowdsourcing is an approach to idea generation and product development, not a technology. However, there’s a variety of tech resources available that enable crowdsourcing for any kind of project; check out Open Innovation for a great list.
- CAD Software – 2D and 3D designs created with CAD software can be saved in a sharable file format before production. You can access professional-grade CAD software on a subscription basis for $19.95/month from Local Motors.
- 3D Printing – 3D printers are rapidly decreasing in price, making it affordable to create a prototype model of a CAD design. Some 3D printers, such as Objet, are already powerful enough to make small numbers of finished items. As this technology advances, the hope is that individuals will be able to produce larger batches of finished products.
- Manufacturing-as-a-Service – Manufacturing is following software’s lead and becoming an on-demand service. Online manufacturing directories like Alibaba and ThomasNet can connect you with a manufacturer that will build for you so you don’t have to invest in any equipment.
- Cloud Computing – The Cloud isn’t a manufacturing-specific technology but it deserves a mention because of how cost-effective it makes running a product business. Cloud solutions like NetSuite and Plex provide affordable solutions for managing orders, inventory, accounting and other business functions.
- E-commerce – Of course, the Internet is a critical enabler for any business these days. Sites like eBay, Amazon, or your own e-commerce website, make it easy for customers to find and buy from you. If you’re interested in running your own e-commerce site, you should check out Volusion and BigCommerce.
Collectively, these technologies make it easier than ever to go from idea to product to market. We’ve already seen technological advances democratize music, film, publishing and other industries. Why not manufacturing?