The Future Rests in Small Hands: Micromanufacturing


July 12, 2016

When one thinks of manufacturing, the first thing that comes to mind is typically a giant factory with a brick facade and a parade of workers marching through the doors each morning. Swiping key cards, preparing for the grind. Large scale operations and convoluted production lines used to be the backbone of retail manufacturing. The key phrase being “used to.” Progress no longer favors the oversized factory, instead many retailers are opting for micromanufacturing.

It sounds complicated but micromanufacturing is simply the manufacturing of products in small quantities using quaint manufacturing facilities. Just as there are now tiny houses, micromanufacturing is the advent of the “tiny factory.” These tiny operations are far from the factories of days past. Most of these micro manufacturing operations fit in one small tiny room. In the future, tiny manufacturing might be as compact as the size of an office copy machine. What has marked the shift from booming and vast to tiny and efficient? Technology.

Micromanufacturing is the next industrial revolution. Rather than welded machines with a series of pulleys and presses, this revolution involves design software, computer controlled laser cutters, and 3D printers. Designers and inventors no longer need to rely on costly outside manufacturing facilities to turn their ideas into a physical reality. With micromanufacturing, individual retailers are able to control the process of creating their product while getting each item to market more quickly and cheaply than previous generations could ever imagine.

To meet the demand of micromanufacturing, many businesses are popping up to aid designers in bringing concept to reality quickly and efficiently. One example of this is a digital fabrication center in Boston, MA known as Fab Labs. Helmed by Professor Neil Gershenfield, Fab Labs has a clear goal of stimulating invention and entrepreneurship by providing designers with a manufacturing outlet that doesn’t break the bank.

Fab Labs currently has 150 locations throughout the world and a Fab Foundation which is designated as a laboratory for research. Fab Labs currently relies heavily on 3D printing to bring intricate designs to life quickly. Studies done by the industry analyst Wohlers Associates found that “additive manufacturing” services such as Fab Labs will reach $3.7 billion in profit by 2016, with that profit rising steadily to $10.8 billion by 2021. The study cited that this particular manufacturing revolution will have a far greater impact on goods and services in 20 years than the internet had decades ago.

Call it the tipping point of manufacturing, but these “tiny factories” completely cut out the middleman. In the past, designers were forced to convince a manufacturer to create their prototype. Once that step was complete, they had to convince a retailer to carry their product. The leg work was immense and often had little pay off. With micromanufactring and the internet, designers hold the world in their hands. No longer are they bound to the confines of profitability and brick and mortar establishments. With technology, they can focus on creating and innovating, rather than going down the manufacturing rabbit hole.

Digital technology will continue to lower design and manufacturing costs by factors of 10 and 20 times, especially as the technology becomes more popular and cost effective. The cost of 3D printing has already fallen by 300% over the past 10 years. With that in mind, it seems micromanufacturing will usher in a new era of efficient and flexible marketing that puts a greater emphasis on the designer and creating great products. The tiny factory micromanufacturing revolution is just beginning and it’s not going anywhere soon.

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