Last fall, Made In Space successfully launched into orbit a 3D printer that could print parts in zero gravity—a first in space history!
As it stands, when a part breaks in space, it’s quite an ordeal to replace it. If the astronauts don’t have the spare parts on hand, it could take several months before a part could be scheduled to launch. That could mean many months of downtime for important equipment.
Even more exciting than simplifying the supply chain for space stations, this accomplishment is a step towards possible human settlement on Mars. Imagine the possibilities! Instead of spending billions of dollars shipping goods to an outpost literally millions of miles away, astronauts can use local resources and print goods on demand. This example clearly defines one of the potentials of 3D printing—you can make anything anywhere…even in space!
Well, not all of us are astronauts and it could be difficult to understand why this technology is important and how we could apply it to our normal, Earth lives. We are at the beginnings of another industrial revolution, enabled by digital manufacturing technology like 3D printing. This revolution will be so disruptive to our economy, that it has forced me to rethink my company’s future.
I am looking at 3D printing and how it can reshape my company’s supply chain over the next decade. Currently my company, Golden Lighting, designs all of our products in Tallahassee and then sends the designs over to China for production. What if we could produce those goods locally in Tallahassee by using digital manufacturing technology? It would cut down on our lead times (currently 5 months) and we could store a lot less inventory. It could also cut down the risks from my “crystal ball” ordering as we begin producing goods on demand.
What is also powerful about digital manufacturing is that it enables small players to join the game. Chinese factories love quantity and standardization because those two things help drive down costs and improve quality. Instead of having to order in lots of 1,000 or 10,000, companies using digital manufacturing can now buy the same items in lots of one. So, that means anybody can make anything anywhere because the capital investment is so low.
I could extend the exercise further and say that one day I might not even be selling goods. Maybe I will just sell the digital designs and the consumer ultimately prints the product out from their desktop printer or at a local printing bureau. Is that so far-fetched? The entertainment industry used to sell tapes, CDs, and DVDs. Now, the preferred mode is instant consumption through digital downloads. I am not too sure how my business model will work in a completely digital format, but I see that this is the direction that my industry could possibly go.
The disruptive nature of 3D printing has made me question what is truly important here. What is my company’s purpose and role in delivering lighting goods to our customers? How will we stay relevant in the industry as technology changes our supply chain and customers? What is the value we bring and how do we keep it?