The Rise of the Internet of Goods: A New Perspective on the Digital Future for Manufacturers >> HOME

The Digitization of Production

So far, the digitization of production has been lagging the digitization of distribution—but that may be changing. The ultimate goal is to create the manufacturing equivalent of a general-purpose computer, which, given the appropriate design (program), can produce the desired good efficiently and quickly.

3D printers come closest to this ideal of digitization. But there are two enormous problems. First, they are far too slow compared to mass production. Second, current 3D printers only work on a limited set of materials.  

New technologies are showing an increase in speed. Carbon, a startup with over $400 million in funding, has a proprietary technology that goes up to 100 times faster than conventional 3D printing techniques. As a result, Adidas is using Carbon fabricators to make midsoles for its new Futurecraft 4D line of athletic shoes. Other companies are also speeding up 3D printing, through either changes in technologies or changes in printing algorithms.

Are the new printers fast enough to compete with conventional manufacturing? Oddly enough, it depends on the distribution system. The traditional distribution system operates best at the scale of containers, mass production, and warehouse inventory. Shipping customized goods directly to the final user in individual lots is inefficient, either slow or expensive, and should be avoided wherever possible, especially for low-cost parts. And 3D printing is unlikely ever to be fast enough to compete directly with mass production.

By contrast, a digitized distribution system makes the rapid shipping and delivery of individual customized items more efficient. That allows for a new business model where 3D printers can offer a customized product that is superior in some dimensions to mass production and able to be delivered quickly and cheaply.  

On an industrial level, the combination of digital production and digital distribution allows manufacturers to escape what Joseph DeSimone, founder of Carbon, calls the “tyranny of injection molding.”  Having a digital fabrication technique that can quickly adapt to new parts can accelerate the entire economy by allowing businesses to innovate faster.

And the range of materials that can be 3D printed is constantly expanding. Desktop Metal is expected to come out with a metal 3D printing system for mass production in 2019. HP plans to launch a line of 3D printers that produce metal objects, an expansion from the company’s existing 3D printers that produce plastic-based products.