In about three hundred years’ time, the human race will be able to “reconstitute matter and produce everything that is needed out of pure energy, no matter whether food, medicaments, or spare parts are required” – that’s if science fiction and Star Trek are anything to go by.
The dream isn’t pure fiction however. The advent of 3D printing and advanced manufacturing is already enabling ordinary people to manufacture parts, components and devices out of unconstituted matter within their own homes.
This blog article looks at distributed manufacturing with 3D printers today, and explores some of the opportunities that it could bring in the very near future. Although not quite as advanced as the 24th-century technology imagined in Star Trek, 3D printing and distributed manufacturing could very soon revolutionise almost every aspect of our lives.
What is distributed manufacturing?
Traditional manufacturing brings every step in a manufacturing process into a central factory, where raw materials would enter through one door and finished products would leave through another.
Distributed manufacturing is the process of decentralizing these steps, removing the need for a central factory where everything happens in a neat, linear fashion (consider the production line pioneered by Henry Ford).
This can be done in many ways and for many reasons. Old-fashioned cottage industries are one example, where people would spin wool and make clothing for their families and communities in their homes.
Modern industrial examples include multiple factories producing different parts to be assembled somewhere else. Computer manufacturing – which is constantly seeking better ways of producing complex machines – has been a forerunner in this, with factories all around the world in places where labour, energy or raw materials are cheaper or more efficient to obtain and transport.
Another industrial example of distributed manufacturing is to place factories and assembly lines as close as possible to the end user or consumer. This can reduce transportation costs, and it also offers opportunities to make minor amends to global products for local markets, taking into account cultural and social differences.
In this way, distributed manufacturing prioritises economies of scope over the economies of scale that traditional, centralised manufacturing provides. What does this mean? Distributed manufacturing frees producers from the limitations of “one-size-fits-all” large-scale processes, and lets them use materials or make modifications that are more fitting to the local market.
How does 3D printing come into all of this?
Two key enabling technologies have matured enough in the last couple of decades to provide a rocket boost for distributed manufacturing: 3D printing and the Internet of Things.
Large-scale producers can now site manufacturing processes anywhere that suits them, with minimal technical barriers to entry, relatively low investment (both in money and in time or effort), and high degrees of control and oversight.
This is possible because 3D printing can automate more and more parts of the manufacturing process. Combined with smart devices, sensors and digital technologies like CAD and SCADA, so-called “cloud manufacturing” is now in many cases a viable and preferred manufacturing solution.
Here, 3D printers are among many smart components (meaning they can process information and connect to the internet) that make up the much-celebrated Internet of Things.
The future of this kind of decentralized manufacturing, with its promise of almost unlimited scope and freedom, relies on the continued and parallel progress of information technology and additive manufacturing techniques.
As computer processing becomes faster and more efficient, more and more nodes in the Internet of Things can provide information, which can then be processed and analysed automatically. Faster computers means bigger networks become manageable, and more can be done with them automatically.
As additive manufacturing continues to advance, more and more physical objects can be produced by 3D printers. We are still exploring more materials, additive manufacturing methods, and rigorous standards and testing. All of these will enable us to print more complex and usable objects – and be able to freely design objects knowing that they will behave as intended.
3D Printing for All
It is not only within the manufacturing industry that 3D printers and the Internet of Things can enable greater scope for producing more and better products. 3D printers in people’s own homes are already being used to manufacture parts and components by passionate advocates of the “maker movement”.
Producers have noticed this trend, and are moving to capitalise on it already. Proprietary designs can be purchased and downloaded onto a computer and directly printed in the consumer’s house.
At the same time, peer-to-peer maker networks have sprung up online, with people making and sharing designs and processes around the world. Recently, in response to the outbreak of COVID-19, people began 3D printing valuable and all-too-often unavailable PPE – although this practice is not without its risks.
Distributed Manufacturing and 3D Printing for Social Change
The changes to manufacturing discussed here are being eagerly anticipated by many seeking to bring about social change. Putting manufacturing capability into the hands of ordinary people can empower them to save money and time, and make changes to their lives and surroundings that only they can see the need for.
“Maker spaces” have begun to open around the world, which put 3D printers and other additive manufacturing technologies, collective skills and experience, and open spaces into communities where these resources would be unavailable. Many schools and universities are also offering these resources to communities to use for free.
For manufacturers, distributed manufacturing and 3D printing can be used to overcome the so-called “last mile challenge” of bringing useful and important products into isolated, remote communities in developing countries.
Here, Neil Gershenfield’s assertion that “some of the least developed parts of the world need some of the most advanced technologies” is important. Gershenfield is the Director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, and a leading thinker in technology and social change.
His point rings true: in places where technology can have the greatest impact, all too often it is simply impossible to get it there. With 3D printing and distributed manufacturing, this and many other inefficiencies and limitations of our current centralised manufacturing systems can be overcome.
In a world where a “replicator” can create any object or material that’s needed, in any place, material needs may all but vanish. This is the future that so many Star Trek fans have dreamed about. And it’s not so far away.
If you’re excited by the promise of 3D printing and distributed manufacturing in your own home, get in touch with Evo3D now to find a low-cost and simple-to-use manufacturing system that will enable you to realise some of your wildest dreams.