Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Hello, Home Depot? Can you print and ship a dozen office tables for me by tomorrow?

This summer, I interned at a manufacturing company which makes metal cutting tools. I saw a 3D printer and my first thought was “Yeah, it’s kind of neat”.  But I was quite surprised by a “printed” piece I saw right next to it – the piece had a fairly complex structure of interconnected gears – and they all moved when you moved one of them. They currently use the technology to develop plastic prototypes but are exploring ways to utilize it for mainstream manufacturing.

In fact, it is not just the manufacturing enterprises that have access to the technology; we see that it is coming closer to the end user. The Kitchen-Table Industrialists talks about DIY manufacturing cooperatives and kits. In August this year, UPS announced that it would offer 3D printing in store, to help startups and small businesses develop models and prototypes of the products. In May, an engineer in Wisconsin developed a gun using a $1,725 3D printer. The gun uses materials worth a mere $25, and you can see it in action in the below video. The fact that a cheap home-made plastic gun can stand the impact of 9 rounds of firing suggests that the technology enables sturdy products.

I would like to mention a recent experience I had with custom development of a product. I wanted to give someone a personalized gift and found a website that lets you design an entire book – cover to cover. They provide thousands of templates for pages, depending on the occasion, your hobbies, etc. The cooler part is that every element in the template is customizable. The coolest part is that they ship overnight.
If a product manufacturing company can extend the business model to include 3D printing, I can imagine a world where it takes online orders from customers, then makes and ships the products. Or a model where one can call the store when they are leaving for work, and on the way pick up the just-in-time manufactured stapler.

Such technology can potentially impact every aspect of the traditional supply chain. The customer may or may not provide the design, but there is a huge scope for design customization. The manufacturing is based entirely on customer demand, so cost of storing finished inventory is reduced. The manufacturing is much closer to the customer, thus the lead times will be much shorter.

So within a 5-7 year horizon, it will be realistic to call Home Depot and say, “I have emailed you the design, can you print and ship a dozen office tables for me by tomorrow?”

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