While technology generally evolves when pushed by major manufacturers, small companies can now play a role thanks to both physical and virtual collaboration. A recent and lengthy report on the evolution of the manufacturing world by McKinsey (Manufacturing the future: The next era of global growth and innovation) addresses, amongst other things, the new technologies and approaches that manufacturers need to integrate into their R&D and productive processes. The first of these is additive manufacturing, the main exponent of which is 3D printing in its various forms. The study underlines how these technologies should be considered a key element in industrial production, and, in fact, the numbers back up their importance.

The most significant growth is the number of industrial production units (machines) that use some form of additive manufacturing: 6500 in 2011, double the number recorded in 2005. However, less than a third of the products made with 3D printing are subsequently used in the production line (see page 89). In fact, most additive manufacturing at the moment is used for making prototypes or moulds, especially in the aerospace and automotive industries, although customized consumer products will be quick to follow.

If the market for industrial 3D printing is growing quickly, there are advantages for everyone, not just for big companies, given that, at the moment, one of the issues in additive manufacturing is the need to force evolution in the technology in order to lower prices and improve material results; if this progress takes place at an industrial level, it will trickle down to smaller companies and consumer printing practises.

The experts polled by McKinsey say that 3D printing is about to boom, helped along by technological advancements and the diffusion of the technology to ever smaller businesses. Despite certain costs, the advantages of additive manufacturing are clear, making it a truly revolutionary force for the flexibility of manufacturing: "AM can be a truly transformative force for manufacturing flexibility by cutting prototyping and development time, reducing material waste, eliminating tooling costs, enabling complex shapes and structures, and simplifying production runs."

McKinsey seems to recognize that this new technology will help equalize the playing field, allowing smaller industries and creative individuals to put projects into production. Online 3D printing shops and makerspaces are the two most important facilitators in this phenomenon, where progress is being made both from top-down and bottom-up.

For example, in the USA, makerspaces may start spontaneously or through centralized initiatives, such as those financed by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) in thousands of American schools. In China, the growth of makerspaces is highly organized: after the opening of the XinCheJian hackerspace in Shanghai in 2010, the City of Shanghai planned the opening of another hundred or so such spaces, financed by the government. The McKinsey report confirms a vision in which a virtual ecosystem around these new technologies - including collaborative spaces, internet marketing and crowdfunding - permits new products to arrive on the market - products that would likely never have come to be using traditional systems of development and manufacturing.

Although products made using this virtual ecosystem cannot beat the prices of those made through mass production, they have the big advantage of being able to be customized. Mass customization is one of the market forces that manufacturing industries will need to deal with in upcoming years. Here, the big players will have to learn from the small ones.

 

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