The Age of Localized Manufacturing

June 2, 2015 -- BIT Magazine It used to be that hospitals treated patients, factories made things, corporate labs researched and developed products, and that was the way things were. Today, however, we are seeing first a blurring of these lines, then their elimination.

Doctors from Florida USA's Nicklaus Children's Hospital hold up 3D printed visualizations of organs used to plan complex surgeries. So popular was this technology that the hospital now has its own 3D printer. 
Hospitals require a tremendous amount of fabricated items, from biomedical devices, to custom fitted braces, brackets, casts, and other wearables for patients during their rehabilitation and recovery. They also need ways of visualizing complicated medical conditions before operating. This used to be done by visual inspection, x-rays, MRIs, and other types of scans.

More recently, 3D printing has been employed to not only improve the efficiency of fabricating custom fitted devices, but also to visualize better scans taken of patients. A surgeon able to hold in their own two hands a complex, complete replica of a heart they are about to operate on can offer a great benefit during the planning stages before the first cut.

And that is precisely what is now happening at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Florida, USA as reported by So helpful was this process, and so confident in the technology of 3D printing, the hospital has decided to purchase a 3D printer of their own and fabricate models in-house. Manufacturing and fabrication doesn't get more localized than that, and we imagine that eventually hospitals and other medical institutions will apply 3D printing for other purposes as well.

The Leading Edge of a Coming Trend 

3D printer at school in Pattaya, Thailand.
While the story of a hospital actually bringing 3D printing in-house grabs headlines, it is likely that the children's hospital is only among the first of many institutions and industries that will shorten their supply chain significantly by bringing manufacturing directly in-house.

As 3D printing and other forms of personal manufacturing become more accessible, because of easier software and hardware, and because greater capabilities of personal manufacturing, it will make as much sense to have a fabrication system on hand as it does to have a paper printer or computer.

In addition to hospitals, an increasing number of schools are purchasing 3D printers and integrating them into curriculum and school activities. Small and medium-sized businesses are also slowly replacing their lengthy supply chains which currently stretch around the globe in some cases, by bringing manufacturing in-house as well. Not only does this shorten the supply chain and inventory risks, it also gives small and medium businesses the ability to massively customize their products to better suite and respond to local markets.

Distributed, Localized Manufacturing 

What we see coming into focus is a growing network of distributed manufacturing. For businesses built upon centralized models, including 3D printing services, the window of opportunity and profitability may slowly be closing. Like "Internet cafes" which are fading from existence because fast and cheap Internet connections have made it finally into the homes of Internet cafe patrons, 3D printing hubs will slowly fade from existence as people become hooked on personal manufacturing and decide to take a machine home with them.

So where does that leave us?

Hospitals will still be hospitals. The expertise a surgeon can bring to scanning and printing a heart, then operating on it is still something only a surgeon can do in a hospital. Businesses currently built-upon providing 3D printing services that are now being moved in-house by their former and potential customers must reevaluate their core strengths and think about a future where no one needs their printing services, but might need what their pool of talent is capable of doing with 3D printers.

Makerspaces too make money offering fabrication services. Like Internet cafes, as more people get 3D printers and the means of manufacturing becomes more distributed, this opportunity will fade. But what can a makerspace still do with 3D printers and other forms of personal manufacturing that, like in the hospital, regular people are incapable of doing?

Product development, developing local infrastructure, and otherwise leveraging the pool of organized talent that forms around a makerspace may be the answer, just like leveraging the immense medical knowledge and technical skill acquired by surgeons working at a hospital.

In essence, it won't be about the means of manufacturing in the future, and profit will no longer stem by holding the means of manufacturing alone, but what will count is what we are able to do intellectually and imaginatively with that means. For 3D printing companies and printing services, as well as makerspaces, now would be a good time to begin positioning for that inevitable future as each year better and more affordable printers, cutters, mills, lathes, and other machines come onto the market.

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