Strategic Futurists; Value Systems Specialists

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The Future of Manufacturing is Upon us

Friday 1 February 2013

The burgeoning shift in the manufacturing sector has been coming for a touch over a decade and has, I would suggest, now reached your front gate. A whole confluence of factors that include 3D printing, Crowdsourcing, home engineering and freescale Idea Generation leveraging social funding approaches means that EVERY single aspect of manufacturing as we know it, is now passing from closed networks and few providers and into the hands of anyone who wants it.

Back in 2004, the National Geographic Channel commissioned a programme called 'Future Matters', a series of vignettes on ideas about the future. Covering topics such as death, sex, cars, clothing, manufacturing, nanotechnology and more it would be arguable to say that the estimations in that program have been brilliantly accurate. I of course flag my bias as I was the futurist co presenting the program with Matt Young, and I'd encourage you to see for yourself just how spot on the program has been when considering the Future of... topics.

Which brings me back to the confluence of factors coming together that is altering manufacturing as we know it:

Social pressures and costs: As prices for products and services have continued to climb, often beyond the reach of many in need of those products and services, the inventive nature of humanity has kicked into gear. In these instances what we see are people who come up with their own solutions to stay alive or secure their future. One recent example which design scientist Melissa Sterry alerted me to via Twitter is the example of a Chinese man who built his own dialysis machine due to inability to afford the costs of hospital dialysis. As reported in the UK's DailyMail in this Story, the Chinese home engineer Hu Songwen has been warned by doctors that he runs the risk of serious infection. That is indeed true. And the reality so far is that Hu's machine has so far been working fine for THIRTEEN years! It's just example of thousands of people inventing their own solutions and by-passing blockages.

Make in Home Technology: Then there's the recent story I was alerted to by GizMag of how 3D printing (which morphed from Rapid Prototyping technology aimed at the big Industry end of manufacturing) is now available for someone to be able to create their own human prostheses. In this story we look at 3D Printing of Fingers for a young boy made by some interested people using a home-kit styled 3D printer. At a more specialised level, Mashable's story of a complete jawbone that was recently printed out to aid a woman who had lost a significant part of her jaw to disease. 3D printing in home kits include MakerBot whose sales have jumped spectacularly in recent times and we're already seeing examples of jewellry designs, toys, replacement parts, clothing and more appearing on the internet. Make no mistake, 3D printing is a massive leap forward but also stand warned - IP Lawyers are circling wth greedy eyes!

And then there's the spike in Crowdsourcing - asking for ideas and help from 'people out there'. We need to be clear - people have ALWAYS come together to help others and will continue to do so. What's different in the Crowdsourcing movement is that way in which it leverages communication technology to spread the request for assistance around the world and to garner huge numbers of options and ideas. Crowdsourcing has been used to solve a decade long HIV problem. Researchers asked the online 'FoldIt' Gaming community for help. They did and solved the challenge in just 3 weeks! There's moves now to add Crowdsourcing into other problem areas like Malaria research, diabetes and more. Large companies like GE are actively pursuing Crowdsourcing opportunities and you can tap places like DesignCrowd to assist you with designs for T-Shirts and more. When it comes to funding you have sites like Indiegogo and Kickstarter who tap the Crowd by showing them ideas and those that appeal to the masses, get funded in small increments. The examples here shift the idea of R&D departments from being 'inhouse' reliant and the cumbersome financial sector funding model (skewed as it is against self starters, women and people without significant assets) into one of fluidity and shared risk. I've already looked at Crowdsourcing Government in this post and Finland's Government has turned to Crowdsourcing for Legislative guidance. The ability of communications technology to enable this move is key.

The implications of the convergence should not be under-estimated. 3D printing can't do everything yet and you can't yet build all technologies in your backyard - you still need sufficient expertise and funding. Yet the funding issue is diminishing rapidly and the ideas and expertise are no longer barriers that will stop you dead in your tracks. Manufacturing sector companies need to understand that 3D printing also offers them a huge market potential by moving into the idea generation space AND the production space on behalf of those who have home engineered or Crowdsourced an early model offering. 3D printing and Crowdsourcing mash-up also challenges the mindset of 'off-shoring' production - the cost benefits of doing so are waning fast. And let's not forget the impact on Transport & Logistics and retail sectors - if people are making things at home then what becomes redundant in the current supply chain model of operation?

Ideas are plentiful, home engineering is becoming increasingly capable and tackling more complex problems, funding and expertise is on hand. Manufacturers who think the 'world as they know it' is safe and secure are deluding themselves


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