The Next Manufacturing Revolution Is Not 3D. It’s Software

(image via Shutterstock)

(image via Shutterstock)

A major challenge to creating and filling manufacturing jobs in the U.S. is the ever-increasing skills gap. There is a widespread misconception that these jobs are low-skill. To the contrary, a large portion of U.S. manufacturing is complex, requiring a high level of expertise that is hard to find.

Investment in improved education and training is surely needed to fill more jobs. But the long-term solution is to lower the barriers of entry to manufacturing work through technology—specifically by using widely accessible, easy-to-use automation software that grows revenues, increases efficiencies, and reduces costs for manufacturers and their customers. People will still be needed to work seamlessly with machines, robots, and computers, but software will enable less highly trained workers to enter the industry.

In speaking with American job shops—typically small manufacturers who produce small batches of custom parts and represent about 95 percent of the 300,000 manufacturers in the U.S.—I have found that much of the staff requires a certain degree of training and on-the-job experience. In some functions, extensive training and a high-level of education are necessary. All of this takes quite a bit of time and money. (In a NY Times blog, a manufacturer details this and its hesitation in hiring.)

This is especially true in developing “gurus” in the shop who are able to validate a design’s manufacturability, price quotes accurately, and create efficient processes and manufacturing plans.

In many job shops, such activities require deep expertise, are predominantly manual, and involve multiple steps: A client sends a computer-aided design file for a desired product; then an expert, or guru, reviews the file, validates its manufacturability, and creates a spreadsheet that outlines the cost and process for manufacture. This person is familiar with the manufacturer’s equipment, logistics, and machine operators. When an original design is not manufacturable, as is often the case if the customer lacks manufacturing expertise or knowledge of the vendor, a design-manufacturing validation iteration cycle begins and sometimes can take several weeks.

The buzz about 3D printing, or “additive manufacturing,” is so loud it’s easy to mistake it for a technology that will solve all of manufacturing’s challenges. Prices for 3D printers are dropping furiously—entry-level home versions go for under $500; top-level industrial versions are under $500,000—and development of a variety of printable materials is steadily advancing. There’s even talk about printing out electronics integrated into the mechanical structures.

But for many factories of the future, the 3D printer will simply be an important piece of equipment that works in harmony with other elements. The shop gurus will still be needed. And either they will expand their skills to 3D printing, or a company will need to hire and integrate this new skill set as additional headcount. The skills barrier keeps rising.

Manufacturing a product is not as easy as selecting an available printer, going through a print-preview-edit cycle and then pressing print. But this should be the goal.

In document printing, a user doesn’t need to know the details of the printer capabilities or printing process itself.  A lot of heavy lifting is done behind the scenes, directed by software, such as the printer driver and a print job scheduler, enabling anyone to easily produce a document. What if this was done in manufacturing?

One embodiment might be:

Document printing Future manufacturing
Select document file Select CAD file
Select a printer from menu Select a manufacturer from menu
“Print preview” and edit cycle “Manufacturing preview” (manufacturability validation, price, delivery) and edit cycle
Hit “Print” Hit “Make”
Receive document Receive product

To quickly scale their businesses today, many job shops would require more and faster working gurus. But because they are so hard to find, this is where software can make a difference by lowering barriers to entry.

For example, using a cloud-based solution, job shops would just need to input their machine list and a few details of their operations. Prospective customers could get customized and automated “manufacturing previews” delivered instantly, calculated and derived behind the scenes via advanced algorithms and analytics. Once clients hit the “make” button, the software could generate the correct codes and optimal manufacturing and process plans for the chosen manufacturer’s systems.

While shop gurus will always be needed, such software could enable American job shops to stay competitive, re-shore our manufacturing jobs, and keep them here for good.

Leon Wong is director of market strategy at PARC, a Xerox company.

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3 Responses to “The Next Manufacturing Revolution Is Not 3D. It’s Software”

  1. Sports Picks says:

    Leon would love to have a more in depth conversation from the experiences in 3D printing we have encoiuntered at Protos Eyewear.

  2. maishado says:

    Biz writers are like the people that come on the today show and talk about the hottest fall diets, and 3d printers. My 3 point warning label for 3d printers.

    1) Near future will not see people printing half baked products at home. People barely print photos at home.

    2) 3D printing = pay more for uglier one-off products in the end, look at Protos Eyewear.
    3D printing has a big downside → the fact that they really havent figured a way to print things as beautiful as molded plastics. Maybe one day, but not soon.

    3) The big prospects for 3d printing is mass production/manufacturing. And even then your not talking about such a big industry, you are only talking about something that could equal the size of the CNC mill manufacturers industry, does anyone know who makes the machines that mill out ipads and iphones?

  3. Ken Elliott says:

    This all sounds good, in theory. But just take a look at photographers that print fine art images and you’ll see high quality 2D printing remains challanging. Simply selecting the file, printer, and clicking “print” deliver an off-color image with poor quality. Users must dive into the study of color calibration (camera, monitor, printer and various papers), color space (sRGB, AdobeRGB and ProPhoto), RAW vs. JPG, etc.

    Like simple text printing on a LaserJet, simple shapes for a hobbiest will become much easier, but the complex will remain so for some time.

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