A statement made by John Engler, the president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers, keeps echoing in my mind. Mr. Engler, speaking at the Emerging Technology Center at IMTS 2010, said: “too often, people think of manufacturing as 3D – dark, dreary and depressing. How many of you recommended that your children should go into manufacturing?”
I think a lot about what Mr. Engler said that morning. After going on to discuss the exciting and cool aspects of manufacturing, Mr. Engler emphasized that the problem is the classic “perception is reality.” I could not agree more. I hear industry leaders in manufacturing bemoan the fact that there are very few young people who are entering manufacturing – even in today's economy. The question then becomes three-fold:
- Can the “3D” perception of manufacturing change?
- What is really needed to drive the change?
- What specifically needs to happen for young people to think manufacturing is exciting, cool, pays well and has a very bright future?
- Not easy questions, to be sure.
My personal opinion is that we are going to see a transition from Mr. Engler's 3D to a new 3D in manufacturing: Dynamic, Digital, and Disruptive. If you think that I am just coming up with marketing mumbo-jumbo, please keep reading. Let me be clear, it won't be marketing that will drive this change. It won't be President Obama visiting a manufacturing plant — although I am glad that the President is doing more for manufacturing than any president that I can remember.
Let's face it, if the United States had let the auto industry die out, it would have been a disaster for our country. A point the president also understands is the importance of the entire manufacturing process from design to distribution and the slippery slope that occurs when manufacturing leaves a country — so many other aspects of manufacturing eventually follow. The President’s emphasis on the entire art-to-part value chain seems to be a channeling of Doug Woods and AMT's Manufacturing Mandate. Driving down the price of additive technology, in the exact same fashion as the advent of the PC, will be the key. Let's take a look back to see the similarities to the PC industry.
I first started working in the computer industry in 1978. In the 1970s and early 1980s it was fascinating to witness the entire PC revolution unfold, from the introduction of the MITS Altair 8800 in 1975, Heathkit, Radio Shack's TRS-80, Apple-1, Commodore PET, the Atari and of course the establishment of the personal computer with the IBM PC on August 12, 1981. It is important to remember who had access to computers prior to the introduction of these small, reasonably priced units. Unless you or someone you knew was in the computer industry or you were attending college and majoring in data processing (that is what it was called before becoming known as computer science, or information technology), you had zero chance of ever getting your hands on a computer. The introduction of low-cost computing for the masses was the foundation for the greatest generation of intellectual property and wealth this planet has ever seen.
In Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, Gladwell states, "In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: 10,000 hours." Gladwell brings up example after example of young people who had the gift of access to technology and the passion to use it as those who ended up being the leaders of the computer revolution. Being smart was not the sole requirement, but instead it was those with easy access to technology, the passion to learn and experiment, as well as just plain hard work that was the difference in those who changed the world. It took 10,000 hours before those individuals were true experts.
I believe there is a better than even chance we will witness history repeat itself, to a lesser degree, with manufacturing for the masses. Let's think about the similarities. Does the average person have the ability to actually manufacture something today? Not unless they are either in manufacturing or know someone who is. Yes, some schools provide basic machine tools, but it is not like those are easy to access for the masses.
Without question, the most exciting part of IMTS 2010 was the Emerging Technology Center. It was additive technology and the micro/nano technology that had everyone shaking their heads in amazement. The key will be additive technology and specifically 3D printers. The price of additive technology continues to drop.
A great example of the start of this revolution is Maker Faire. Maker Faire is put on by MAKE Magazine. From Wikipedia: “Make (or MAKE) is an American quarterly magazine focused on DIY (Do It Yourself) and/or DIWO (Do It With Others) projects involving computers, electronics, robotics, metalworking, woodworking and other disciplines. The magazine is marketed to people who enjoy "making" things and features complex projects which can often be completed with cheap materials, including household items.” Another site to check out is Thingiverse. Thingiverse has a number of inexpensive additive technology devices and some interesting projects.
Today, the state of this technology is in the equivalent to what was going on in the PC industry back in the mid 1970s. These technologies are viewed as cool stuff for the geeks who like to make DIY or DIWO. There are five pieces of the puzzle that are needed for this additive manufacturing revolution to come to fruition. Four of these are already happening to various degrees.
- Free or inexpensive CAD/CAM software. We are already there.
- Low-cost 3D printers. This is the key piece that is starting to happen today to various degrees.
- Service Bureaus. The ability to easily send the CAD files to a local 3D printing service bureau that can make the part on a full production 3D printer. This is already happening today with Proto Cafe in Redwood City, Calif.
- Large additive technology companies and machine tool companies that realize it is worth priming this pump because it serves their strategic interests.
- Everything connected on the net. With MTConnect we are quickly adding manufacturing equipment to the enterprise. Manufacturing is the network.
A great example of why this is important at the professional level is in Greenville, S.C., with a company called ADEX Machining Technologies. What is extremely impressive about ADEX is the new position they created. Traditionally, you have CNC programmers and machinists, which are separate positions. ADEX has created a hybrid role where employees must be accomplished CNC programmers and skilled machinists. ADEX employees have made it very clear that, by wearing both hats, it gives them the satisfaction of both designing parts and then actually creating the part. ADEX has a tremendous challenge in finding employees who can meet this new hybrid role.
Looking back at the PC revolution, we know the first phase was the ability to provide cheap computing to the masses and the second phase was when these low-cost systems were all networked. The PC revolution was Dynamic, Digital, and it was very Disruptive to the status quo. The entrepreneurs who developed software on PCs and then eventually started their own companies sparked a revolution. Who will be the Bill Gates, the Steve Jobs, and the Scott McNealys of manufacturing? I will bet that it will be those young people with access to technology, the passion to learn and experiment as well as those who are just plain hard workers who will end up changing the world of manufacturing from old 3D to new 3D — Dynamic, Digital and Disruptive. I can't wait.
Director, The Office of Strategic Innovation
AMT - The Association For Manufacturing Technology