Back in July 2009 EEF Published Manufacturing Our Future. In this we commented that:
“Just as today's internet giants began life with one computer in a garage, advances in design and digital manufacturing mean that tomorrow's manufacturing multinationals will start from equally humble beginnings.”
And an article in this week's economist suggests that 3D printing could be just the technological advance that drives advances in tomorrow's manufacturing:
“As with computing in the late 70s it [3D printing] is currently the preserve of hobbyists and workers in a few academic and industrial niches. But like computing before it, 3D printing is spreading fast as the technology improves and costs fall.”
In fact, 3D printing could be a real game-changer for industry
“By reducing the barriers to entry for manufacturing [it should] promote innovation. If you can design a shape on a computer, you can turn it into an object. You can print a dozen, see if there is a market for them, and print 50 more if there is, modifying the design using feedback from early users. This will be a boon to inventors and start-ups, because trying out new products will become less risky and expensive.”
And 3D printing really could be open to anyone. An exciting example of this is the RepRap project which was showcased at NESTA's recent personal manufacturing seminar. RepRap have developed a replicating 3D printer that prints about 50% of its own parts, with the other parts are easy to obtain from a hardware shop or online. RepRap has a website called Thingiverse, where you can download designs that others have created to print on your printer.
With costs of 3D printing falling (the Economist notes that a 3D printer now costs less than a laser printer did in 1985) the potential for a paradigm shift in how we produce is really here. Open-source designs combined with simple production methods could lead to a form of modern manufacturing which combines elements of mass- and bespoke-production.