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The declining state of many factories does not lead us to think that we are on the verge of a 3D printing manufacturing revolution, as TED Talk speaker Olivier Scalabre has presented. Some aspects of the 3D print industry are seeing an evolution, while other segments are not. An area that needs the most evolution, revolution, renovation, and upheaval lies in the hands of the school system and educators to provide a better foundational understanding of how products are made if we want to be able to understand how to improve their manufacturing processes.
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3D Printing Manufacturing Revolution
Today, we’re going to discuss 3D printing manufacturing revolution, which is being sponsored by MakerBot. This came from a recent TED Talk, from Olivier Scalabre. It’s called The Next Manufacturing Revolution Is Here. I’m not sure I totally agree with it. I think we’re questioning whether or not it’s a manufacturing revolution. Maybe a little uprising needs to happen, a little evolution and renovation. I don’t know if I would call it revolution though. I think it may have become cliché. 3D printing is often talked about as the second or the next industrial revolution. It’s quite an overused term maybe. I think it is. That’s my question.
His point is that the GDP of most countries is actually in decline. It’s not in increase. That means that manufacturing and output is in decline as well. If our factories are exactly the same way that they were 50 years ago, that’s a very bad thing. We know it. We’ve been walking a factory in Asia at any given time and it looks like archaic technology is not even really incorporated that well into the factory itself.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t pockets of CAD rooms and other things, but you’re still carrying out … When they’re building molds and they’re doing all these things, they’re not necessarily cutting edge technology. The factories themselves have not kept up.
I think that it depends on the category of product being manufactured. Certainly there’s high tech manufacturing in Asia we’ve seen and that makes electronics products and such. Your common manufacturing of consumer goods, most consumer goods in general, factories are pretty primitive because they don’t want to spend any money on it and they think they don’t have to.
He’s lumping together 3D printing and AI basically or robotic deliveries, like the robotic systems at Amazon that prep and ship products and things like that, which I don’t disagree. There’s been a lot of automation. That would be the way that I would describe it more so than I would that it was completely robotic. Not all of them are smart robots in that sense. I think we tend to see more robotic manufacturing in more industrialized, more developed countries like the United States and other European countries because labor is so expensive.
At the same time, I just interviewed Herman Miller about the change that they’ve made to the Aeron chair which is a 22 year old chair or something from 1994. Classic icon chair. We talked about it before because I worked for them in those early days of the launch of that.
The thing about it is, is that they were saying to me that they’ve actually brought more of the parts that they used to outsource in house, into their facility. They’ve utilized their labor better, they utilize the technology and the processing. It’s more efficient, cost effective and profitable for them to do that than it is to outsource those parts. They couldn’t have made that decision back in 1994 because they didn’t necessarily have all those core capabilities that they do today.
Here, I remember the Herman Miller factory as being quite state of the art at the time. They were very automated. They were forced to do that. They used quite innovative processes to put through as much volume as possible as they could with as little labor as possible.
I remember their factories and going to them back in the early to mid 90s when we lived in Michigan. At that time, there was not as much Asian manufacturing or Asian sourcing going on by US companies. Maybe certain components here or there, but not a whole lot of complete products. It wasn’t like it is today.
But even back then, they would have the foam injection and they had all of these processes about how they would create the chair. If we go into a factory in Asia, they’re still gluing foam layers together and carving them out and doing them a more labor intensive way because they have not been forced to change into being more optimum like that, either from a standpoint of being required of it for the product purposes because that high level of quality of foam was required at a contract level, and/or because they needed to change because of cost effectiveness.
In China, certainly where we have the most experience, labor is still the cheapest thing they have, and materials are the most expensive thing they have. Machines are somewhere in the middle. If they can do anything by throwing more labor at it, they’d do that first.
In this TED Talk, Olivier is pointing out that by 2018, manufacturing costs in China is going to be on parwith the US in certain segments by 2018, that’s his number. That’s the first thing I will take issue with in this TED Talk on a 3D printing manufacturing revolution. That’s a red flag. Right now, it’s six to one. One US dollar is, essentially … There’s some variables. Don’t quote me on it based on what’s on the Wall Street Journal today. But, essentially, one US dollar gets you six Chinese dollars.
But that’s at straight cost. You still haven’t considered transportation costs which have been rising. All of these other things that are going on over the course of time that is actually changing that demographic number or that dynamic of that number to being lower, or the variable between the two being lower. We have seen labor rates rising in China overall. They’ve not been suppressed by the government as they have in the past and reset it lower.
In the time that we’ve worked in China, the Chinese dollar has gone from being, probably in my recent memory of years, maybe as much as nine Chinese dollar to one US dollar. It’s slowly eroded down. The Chinese government has kept the difference artificially high, or low essentially I guess is the way to look at it, because they want to continue to be the world’s factory. They want to increase their business and economy. I think the Chinese people overall, especially the factory class and their middle classes, they want more of all the things we all have. It’s going to raise the standard of living. It will change more. He has a point there. That’s not difference.
3D Printing Manufacturing Revolution – The Reality
Here’s the thing. I don’t think the way that Scalabre sees robotics and 3D printing as the cure for it, I actually think it’s different. He’s saying that he thinks what’s missing in that manufacturing process is it’s not become flexible. Customization on demand, tweaking of products for new iterations, that kind of thing. Not 3D printing. He’s talking about manufacturing in general.
The reality is that I don’t know that I think that it’s necessarily for the majority of what is being sold as consumer products today. That demand for customization and iterations and those kinds of things is actually not growing. Don’t get me wrong. You see this popping up everywhere. You can have custom shoes, you can have custom clothes. Way back when, we used to have custom Levi’s.
These things were available. Lead times have gotten shorter, costs have come down on them, and yet they still don’t have a high level of traction in terms of consumer purchasing. There’s a segment of the market that does want it and will wait for it, but it’s not a growing segment. It’s not growing as fast as we could be able to serve it with all the options and things that we could do.
I do think that in the design development process, we do highly use this. It is of great advantage so that we don’t make a bunch of consumer products that don’t work again. I think we’ve put through a bunch of junk in a sense, through the system of manufacturing, because it wasn’t well tested in the marketplace.
We talk about this all the time: Seven out of 10 products fail. We’ve probably seen a higher statistic than that from many companies who have come to us and talk to us. Their failure rate is a lot higher when you dive deep into whether or not there’s been good success. It might have made some money but not that profitable or just barely when we dive into the numbers and we look at their product lines.
I think a lot of companies end up, when they want to get more sales, their first thought is, “I got to put up more products.” They really put out new or innovative products or products that people really need. The first thing they always gravitate to is putting out, “I’ll put out a product to have it in another color.” That really has only a very small incremental increase in sales. Really, more often we find it ends up splitting sales with the other colors they’re already selling. It splits volumes after a certain point. Once you hit three colors, after that point it splits volume.
This is one of those things where we look at that and we say, “That’s not really the case.” However if we were better at product development on the front end, like we are and our statistics are, if you’re better at the front end at dialing in and making sure that I’m actually making the right thing for my audience, for my market, for my distribution channel.
If all of those things are a right fit, then I haven’t gone to tool for it, I haven’t made a bunch of junk that ends up sitting in inventory. I’m more efficient, I’m more cost effective. Then it really doesn’t even matter where it’s being made because it’s made in the most efficient materials and the most efficient process that makes sense for the product.
What’s changing to me is the fact that companies who are investing in a manufacturing process are the ones who are hurting. If you’ve invested in a bunch of machines to make a particular object, heavy equipment, and that equipment is not flexible, that’s where you’re going to run into trouble. To me, that’s where the manufacturing has changed. We just don’t see floors and floors of equipment that is exactly the same.
Because if we do, then what are you doing? You just pump out anything you can, regardless of whether or not it’s successful. What we find is when we look at that overall program of what you’re offering, this is the fastest thing, we can go in and cut a third instantly off of any program. We’ve don’t it multiple times for many companies in all areas, where we just cut the line down by a third. Instantly, you increase your profitability because they’re dead weight.
This is the other thing that most established manufacturers who are heavily invested in manufacturing equipment fall into this trap of when they develop new products, instead of developing those products to be the right product for what the consumer wants and needs, they end up developing a product that’s really more of a fit for their manufacturing capabilities.
Titan Robotics is a company that made that really big machine outside of Colorado, in Colorado Springs rather, and I loved their model of business because they were designing their machine was right for exactly what you wanted to make with it. I like that idea of a machine being right for exactly what you need to make for it today and then being flexible enough to take it out and change it out and make it something else. That really is super smart to me.
MakerBot and a 3D Printing Manufacturing Revolution
It’s one of the big reasons that we are big proponents of the way that the MakerBot, the whole extruder, the Smart Extruder, is replaceable. We really like the idea of it because it gives your machine a lot more flexibility and longevity. That’s a really smart plan in an industry that it’s moving so fast, you really can’t predict what the material you’re going to want to print tomorrow is.
In fact, MaketBot has done that in terms of not only in the original fifth generation machine. They have the Smart Extruder which had a lot of issues. It’s no big secret. We actually have a blog comparing the old one to the new one so you can see the improvements they made. They improved it and it works on the old machine on the old MaketBot fifth generation machine.
Now they came out with a new Replicator+. It also uses the Smart Extruder+, but now they’ve made a new kind of Smart Extruder that it particularly optimized for a different material, the first material that they’ve brought out on these machines instead of normal PLA. It’s a tough PLA, it has the properties of ABS.
You can now use that without having to replace your entire printer. The printer is capable of more that they didn’t even plan for originally. By having this interchangeable part, now they expand the capabilities of it. It’s a perfect example.
That’s the shift that I think needs to happen. It’s actually on an equipment processing side. That whole side is the side that manufacturing should shift. It’s not manufacturing something different. I don’t think that there’s a great demand for something different. There might be segments and it’s always shifting. That why we have a job figuring out what people want to buy next or what you should sell next. That’s actually more of our job.
It’s just a world at which that shift is happening faster so you must be more flexible to make that happen. I don’t know that 100% the answer is always going to 3D printing. In pockets, it definitely is and can be and should be. I love the idea of also just some of these companies are 3D printing tools. There are super smart and inexpensive ways to go about things if you’re going to make small runs or test runs. Iterating products to test and see if there’s a market share of it before I invest in large equipment purchases and doing all these things. Great way to use 3D printing in a manufacturing process, in building up your demand and revenue before you invest heavily like that. That just makes complete sense to me. I don’t know if the answer is definitively more automation and robotics and more 3D printers. That make not serve I well.
3D Printing Manufacturing Revolution Lies in an Educated Workforce
Olivier Scalabre does mention something that I think is really important. He says that it needs to basically re-implement manufacturing classes at the university level because we need to retrain our work force. I do not disagree with that. I think that there’s a lack of understanding on manufacturing processes in general coming out of schools.
We see it all the time. How many people have not walked into a factory? He said that mature economies will have to seize the fact that growth does not come automatically. We have to massively retrain our work force and through the need to re-implement manufacturing classes at a university level.
I can’t speak for every school and if that kind of education has gone away. Certainly we know that at the secondary school level, at the high school level, the trades classes of shop class, industrial arts, did go away for a time. It was there in the 80s and when I was in high school and then it went away as I understand it. Now, it’s coming back.
The maker movement has really been spurred in a lot of these maker spaces because shop class is not in so many schools with the cuts in education funding. In college, certainly in an industrial design education, which is what I went through at Rhode Island School of Design, we had to learn all about manufacturing processes.
We had to actually make everything that we designed on the types of machines that at least you would use to make prototypes. They may not have been production machines. We didn’t do injection molding but we did machining on milling machines. We did laith work, we did all wood work, forming, plastic forming, all sorts of things.
The problem with that is that it’s not firsthand experience, which you know that once you got out into the world, that it was so much critically important to how you designed to have walked into a factory floor and seen how things are actually being made today.
You need to get as much education as you can in school, but it is different out in the real world, on the factory floors that are making the things. Whether they’re in the US or in another country. As an engineer, as a designer to do a good job, you got to go there and learn how it’s really done.
Same thing with my textile education. I learned how to spin yarn. I actually used a drop spin, which is an archaic … Like how they would do it in the colonial times. I might as well have been doing that. Like Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts or something. It felt like that that Thanksgiving that I actually did that at home to finish that project on time.
We learned the system for how it’s made and that manufacturing process at that basic level is an extremely important information. To never then get into a factory until after I graduated. Thank goodness my first job was in a huge company that did tons of manufacturing and all different kind of processes all the way from dyeing to yarn processing to every kind of technology imaginable. They had everything. Not to mention weaving at light speed.
Having gotten to experience it, understanding how it’s structured, how it works, how the fundamentals of it work. To stop there would have been a huge disservice to my ability to design and my process. Going in and seeing how it can be made and all the options you have and what would make a better more profitable design if I incorporate this into it or if I made this efficient or if I designed something that made that more difficult, to inspect something.
You look at those things and you learn so much more that way. We don’t have that first hand partnerships that used to happen between manufacturing at university level and schools in general. That’s not happening. We see it happening in the tech world but we don’t necessarily see it happening in the more industrial areas.
Is There a Demand for a 3D Printing Manufacturing Revolution?
It’s probably because of the migration of manufacturing out of the United States of America in many ways. It’s not universal across every kind of manufacturing. But certainly, we’ve experienced over the course of our lives and even our parents before us, that factories were closing down and the labor rate and the wages of the US worker just could not be afforded by manufacturers in order to meet the retail prices that people were willing to pay. Certain manufacturing has just left this country.
I also think it’s a funding issue. There’s a lot more dollars happening in the technology world so there’s a lot more dollars to go around. There’s a lot more demand for exposure to those students so that they will come and want to work for you and be good future knowledge base for you. We don’t see that happening in that manufacturing world anymore. They don’t need the extra labor. They can’t afford it anyway if they did.
We have that problem going on in terms of there aren’t dollars being spent in that community outreach or educational outreach. At the end of the day, we have to shift that. That is where I agree with Olivier here. That has to shift because we’re moving into a design economy. If those designers do not understand how to make actual products on no matter what type of equipment it’s on, then we have a bigger problem. We cannot just design our products in a computer.
To me, this is not really news. It’s not a 3D printing manufacturing revolution. That’s what I said at the beginning. To me, this is not news in that … It’s true in every field of study. Engineering and design and manufacturing are some of those fields of study that there’s always new technologies, there’s always new things to learn. The amount of information that there is to learn in this world continues to expand exponentially.
Every new generation has so much more to learn than generations that came before. I don’t see that changing anytime soon. You always need to learn what’s new about manufacturing, but I think there’s still a lot of conventional manufacturing processes that are not specifically 3D printing and software and technology that you need to learn as well.
It is interesting since the desktop computer has come to be and software for CAD since the early 80s, I do think that there has been an ever increasing trap or gap that I think that professionals can fall into where they’re in their computer world and not experiencing enough of what they’re engineering or designing is actually getting made. That’s a fundamental problem.
3D printing is helping to bridge that because physically, you’re making a model perhaps at the end of your desk and you start to realize that gap. You have no excuse in that world to not recognize that it’s happening. It does have to go further than that because its end product is not necessarily going to be produced on that particular printer.
There’s still a gap but it’s closing the gap. Desktop 3D printing is doing a tremendous amount to close that gap. That just excites me as a design professional. I was skeptical. I was absolutely skeptical. Most often, it’s because of the things that we talk here on the podcast. A lot of misinformation that’s out there. A lot of hype that seems just false. In my mind, they were raising red flags. I was right, they were false. They were too much hype.
It’s not a 3D printing manufacturing revolution. It’s not a cure all. Does it have a place? Absolutely. Can it do some amazing things and create some amazing opportunities? I love talking on this podcast to the interviews we get every week because I’m learning something new about how somebody is applying something.
We have so many exciting interviews coming up in the next month that I was just like, every time I get somebody new, I’m like, “I don’t think we can talk about something new.” We’re heading into 400 episodes. I’m just as excited about it today as I was when we started day one.
I don’t think there’s any end to the number of subjects we can talk about. Honestly, I really don’t. I wondered at some point, are we going to have trouble finding guests? No. We don’t seem to have any problem finding guests and finding them in new areas and finding new ways that 3D printing is being used or new approaches.
There’s always another software CAD program coming out or 3D printer coming out to investigate and review. There’s no end to that either. I can’t review enough of them. In fact, we have several reviews planned of 3D printers. But the companies that are proactive in sending them are the ones getting reviewed. Others I’d like to review, some companies are just not on the ball with being willing to or able to send out review units. They’re being left out unfortunately. We keep trying. There’s no end to it. We’ll keep trying.
As always, please let us know what you think and what you’d like us to talk about or like us to find an interview subject or review on. We’d love to hear from you anywhere on social media @3DStartPoint and of course anywhere on the blog post. You can go to any one of them, comment on them, send emails at 3DStartPoint.com. We do get back to you. We do read those ourselves. Sometimes it takes us a few days so be patient, but we do get to them personally.
- Olivier Scalabre TED Talk on the 3D Printing Manufacturing Revolution
- Why Hermann Miller Redesigned it’s Bestselling Aeron Chair
- Titan Robotics 3D Printer
- Comparison of MakerBot Extruder and Smart Exturder+
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