The majority of the products we buy and use are created outside of our own country. Most North American companies outsource their manufacturing simply because it’s way cheaper to make stuff outside of our continent — typically in a single centralized production facility. Decentralized production is the exact opposite: using local production facilities interspersed throughout or close to communities. 3D printing could be the next big thing for decentralized manufacturing, with major advancements on the horizon for this tech and loads of untapped potential.
Why should I care?
Decentralized manufacturing fixes many of the glaring issues with centralized manufacturing, and provides a number of other important benefits. In the future, it could be far cheaper for the consumer, it gets products to the end location far quicker than shipping overseas, it’s more convenient, and it eliminates many supply chain and logistics issues, making it more reliable than outsourcing manufacturing to other continents. Take for example the Suez Canal incident — the cargo ship stuck in there has cut off 10% of global trade simply due to the fact that so many of the products we consume have to cross continents through one centralized waterway. This has been a bit of a wakeup call in terms of how fragile our supply chain can be and how much it can be impacted by factors as random and as out of our control as strong ocean currents. Decentralized manufacturing would mean cutting off these weak points in our supply chains and manufacturing the products in the same vicinity as the end consumers, whether that’s in the same country, city, neighborhood, block, or sometimes the same household. Decentralized manufacturing through 3D printing puts the means of production in the hands of a very small group of people, or in the hands of the end consumer themselves, leading to a number of important benefits that I previously stated; improved speed, reliability, cost reduction for the consumer, etc.
Examples and previous applications:
Decentralized manufacturing isn’t really new — it’s been implemented many times in the past, often successfully. One major example is Johnson & Johnson’s decentralized manufacturing style, in which they use over 200 factories around the world to produce their products in the same vicinity as the end consumers. This has proven extremely beneficial for multinational coporations like Johnson & Johnson. Using factories that are connected in terms of management and tech systems (IoT plays a huge role here too), while still keeping these factories and management centers geographically separate allows them to render supply chain management far easier and transport products far quicker to the end consumer or to retailers than the speed and reliability possible with a centralized manufacturing approach.
A somewhat more relevant example is a massive recent initiative surrounding the hobbyist 3D printing community and the PPE shortage at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic — thousands of local decentralized manufacturing communities formed around the world to come together and produce things like face shields and other forms of PPE to help combat the shortage, partially due to the adaptable nature of 3D printers allowing them to produce PPE months before injection moulding/other mass manufacturing machines could be created to make them en masse.
Potential and what it could replace:
The problem with decentralized manufacturing right now all comes down to cost, which is why approaches like Johnson & Johnson’s likely won’t fully replace centralized manfacturing any time soon. Labour costs throughout the world vary far too much for some companies to consider it “worth it” for the added supply chain reliability and other benefits I talked about earlier. On the other hand, there’s decentralized/at-home manufacturing through 3D printing — a bit of a moonshot, but it has the potential to eventually replace a significant part of centralized manufacturing and change how we create, buy, and sell products as a whole. When 3D printing eventually catches up with traditional manufacturing techniques in terms of material properties, accuracy/tolerances, and it comes relatively close in terms of speed, a new type of decentralized/at-home manufacturing may be born, in which the product becomes the 3D models.
This could end up eventually replacing all forms of centralized manufacturing that don’t have distinct quality and material advantages over 3D printing due to the far quicker speed, far lower cost for the consumer (cost of 3D printer material + CAD model < cost for traditionally manufactured product), and the complete elimination of all supply chain issues and all shipping delays.
The future of decentralized manufacturing:
While researching decentralized and at-home manufacturing for this article, my main thoughts were mostly along the lines of “Why doesn’t this exist yet?” Turns out the primary factors holding 3D printing back as a viable method for decentralized/at-home manufacturing are technical problems; the speed, cost, and accuracy (or lack thereof) currently associated with 3D printing. Currently, the two main consumer options both have significant downfalls that still haven’t truly been addressed: SLA (resin printing) is fairly dangerous and notoriously difficult, and is pretty much exclusively used by those in scientific fields and by hobbyists that require accuracy higher than that currently capable through FDM printing. FDM’s main downfalls are currently the difficulty of use (it’s easier to use and maintain than SLA but still requires far too much time and effort to be feasible for mainstream household use), the extremely low accuracy relative to SLA and injection moulding, the sometimes undesirable material properties (strength, texture, printing issues, etc.), and a number of other issues around FDM as a whole (I wrote a whole article on it if you want to check it out).
These factors are some of the main things stopping 3D printers from becoming the machines that many might have envisioned where one would basically “order” an item and have that item pop out of the machine in a certain amount of time, which would allow consumers to easily and efficiently produce their own products, and buy almost exclusively 3D models and 3D printer material instead (this prospect really excites me!)
Economic benefits and detriments:
This future many have dreamed of in which many of the products we buy and use would be CAD models instead of physical objects would change the world a fair amount, both for better and for worse. Jobs surrounding CAD design would the extremely accessible — basically available to anyone with internet access, a decent computer, and time to learn some CAD skills. This basically means places without high speed and high reliability shipping infrastructure would have opportunities to create far more jobs in fields relating to manufacutring— especially the developing world, which would see massive benefits from this. 3D printing materials would also see significant advancements, in addition to the huge number of jobs that would be created within this field.
However, companies in industries like shipping infrastructure and supply chain management would likely see significantly less use, besides the sale of electronics and other products requiring material properties that will never be acheived by 3D printers. It goes without saying that downsizing these industries would cause loss of jobs, although I still believe that the benefits to the consumers (often those working in said affected industries), the benefits to environmental sustainability (the current most popular 3D printing plastic type is biodegradable and all the polution associated with shipping overseas would be vastly reduced), and the benefits to supply chain reliability far outweigh the loss of jobs.
This potential future is a long ways away. There’s a ton of hurdles to overcome, mostly relating to technical issues like 3D printer reliability, accuracy, and ease of use, but also economic issues and a potential negative reaction from the general public if this future becomes a real possibility. The future of decentralized and at-home manufacturing through 3D printing is uncertain, but pretty freakin’ awesome.
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