While most of the world is yet to be enlightened as to how 3D printing will change manufacturing, Autodesk CEO Carl Bass is already talking about its limitations and why biological manufacturing is the industry’s more exciting future.
Bass, a 57-year-old maker (of boats, furniture, sculpture, and software) who claimed he “dressed up” in a graphic tee, jeans, and sneakers for his appearance at Techonomy 2014 in Half Moon Bay last week, joined fellow manufacturing industry thought leaders for a conversation about how hardware and software are changing manufacturing. The discussion with Shapeways founder Marlene Vogelaar and PCH CEO Liam Casey, moderated by Techonomy’s David Kirkpatrick, touched on the need for changes in the education system, how new processes are empowering entrepreneurial and startup makers, and the advantages of bespoke products.
No question, computers have revolutionized how products are designed, engineered, and made. “You’ve finally taken the power of a microprocessor and applied it to the manufacturing process,” said Bass. “The really interesting things here and on the near horizon? It’s all about being driven by microprocessors.”
Bass said the industrial revolution enabled the manufacture of “high-quality things at reasonable prices if we made a gazillion of them.” The advent of computer-driven manufacturing eliminates the need for such economies of scale, he said. Instead, now “you can make one or two—custom or bespoke stuff.”
That’s not to say that economies of scale will go away. “Injection molding in low-cost labor markets will probably continue to be the best way to make plastic widgets,” Bass said. “But 3D printing is opening up a whole new area of products that weren’t possible before. You couldn’t do custom products at reasonable cost before.”
He said the technology eliminates concerns about shape and complexity as well as the need for craftsmanship or capital-intensive equipment. “You can make a 3D model and print it and we can make the exact same part anywhere—the bottom of the ocean, around the world. That has huge possibilities,” he said.
Still, a limitation of 3D printing is that “things go up as cubed power—the power of 3,” Bass explained. “If I want to make something twice as big, it takes 8 times as long; 3 times as big takes 64 times longer. You will always be fighting that. There will be breakthroughs and things we can do in parallel, but biological processes get around that.” It’s why the more promising future for manufacturing is biological, he said.
Bass explained how manufacturers are harnessing new tools to be able to grow more than just food differently. Today, DNA can be mail-ordered, manipulated, and 3D-printed with little information. The code for Ebola virus, for instance, is contained in 2,000 bits of information; a megabit of information comprises the oak tree. “That’s a relatively small amount of information that we need to manipulate to get outcomes that we know of,” Bass said. “At Autodesk, we’re asking, ‘What lessons can we bring from what we learned in helping people design in the inert world and bring that to the biological world?’”
One example: Autodesk delivers software tools to a group of Harvard researchers designing nanoscale robots for in vivo drug delivery.
On the other hand, Bass said he is not optimistic that this revolution secures livelihoods for the middle class. “No doubt, there’s a future for people who can design and build these things. A much more serious conversation has to take place about what happens when robots take our jobs. What are we all going to do?” he asked. (One of his “only half-facetious” ideas is to tax robots’ output.)
“As long as we can keep inventing jobs in front of the ones we’re eliminating, that’s great, but we need to have an education system that supports those kinds of jobs,” Bass said. “Right now we’re teaching kids in school for jobs in a future that doesn’t exist.”
Bass’s plea for updates and upgrades to education were echoed by many at Techonomy 2014. But PCH founder and CEO Liam Casey also stressed the economic importance of changing supply chain and distribution terms to favor small manufacturers. His company takes product ideas from concept to consumers—“all the way through the development stage, manufacturing, and logistics to ship direct to consumers’ homes.” He said it’s been several years since PCH launched its Highway 1 hardware startup incubator to serve the new wave of independent designers with access to 3D printing, Arduino, and Linux that are “driving a renaissance in prototyping and fostering innovation like we haven’t seen before.”
Casey said, “People come to us with great, new ideas every day. We move 10 million parts a day across our network. We know we can make this stuff. The hard thing is still the distribution and selling. If you can’t get real partnerships for sales and distribution, you’re going to have problems. That’s the big part that needs to be disrupted.”
His answer to Americans who say the U.S. needs to bring back manufacturing is: “It’s got nothing to do with manufacturing, it’s got everything to do with distribution and the contracts big box retailers put in front of the startups.” Take one he saw recently: It required a small manufacturer to have 3 months worth of inventory in the channel as well as consigned inventory in the store and distribution centers, with 90-day payment terms. “There is no way anyone on Sand Hill Road would fund a contract like that,” Casey said.
Instead, stores could be getting higher quality and more innovative products by offering better terms to startups. For instance, Casey said Radio Shack agreed to a PCH proposal to reengineer its supply chain in order to “give a platform to great products and great entrepreneurs.” Instead of three months of channel inventory, the stores agreed to receive shipments of products directly once a week with no consigned inventory, no right to return, and payment terms of 14 days instead of 90.
“You wipe out a huge amount of risk when you do that,” Casey said. The deal enables nimble and creative startups such as Little Bits from New York to ship product into 4,200 Radio Shack stores once or twice every week. “That’s what’s going to really create a fantastic ecosystem of hardware startups in Silicon Valley,” Casey said.
The Earth’s ecosystem could also benefit, noted Shapeways cofounder Marlene Vogelaar. She pointed to the impact of serving all the world’s manufacturing needs from China: In the global capital of blue jean manufacturing there, she said, the water is contaminated with dye and one in eight children is born with a tumor.
“We’ve created a system where ecological impact is not visible here. We’ve created a system with very complex supply chains that can take very long…. And we’ve created a system where you cannot have something that is special, bespoke to you, or customized.”
With smarter machines, however, she said, “we can use technology like 3D printing to cut out the long supply chain and negative impact on the environment, create something bespoke or customized to customers’ desires, and have shorter lead time” as well as manufacturer closer to the customers. “By doing it locally you will reduce the whole footprint,” she said.
Of course not every product is ripe for such changes, the panelists agreed. “Some things we do now won’t go away,” Bass said, adding that manufacturing “will still be driven by the same underlying factors it’s always been—cost, reliability, and how much up-front versus on-a-run rate basis.” But he has no doubt that additive manufacturing—the general category of 3D printing—subtractive manufacturing, robotic assembly and manufacturing, bio, and nano will be the tools of the future. “We’re really just adding to our toolkit,” he said.