Last year was pretty big for the American manufacturing industry. Milestones both big and small made headlines: the White House hosted a Maker Faire; scientists achieved firsts in 3D printing technology by printing living human tissue and printing in zero gravity; President Obama announced his commitment to supporting American manufacturing through the creation of research hubs in key U.S. cities; a resurgent labor market has continued to fuel an “onshoring” trend with manufacturing jobs returning stateside; we figured out how to 3D print pizza, chocolate and sugary treats.
As important as all of the strides made in the U.S. manufacturing space were in 2014, we’re most excited about what might be around the corner. We’re confident this is only the beginning of an exciting new era in our industry. Here are a few trends we’re keeping an eye out for this year:
The Internet of Things: Much has been said about this coming suite of technologies across a range of industries; less has been said about its potentially revolutionary impact on how we make things.
The Internet of Things encompasses the future of our interconnected networks as more and more previously isolated devices — from jet turbines to household refrigerators — come “online.” By connecting formerly disparate tools and functions of factory floors, manufacturers worldwide will be able to collect and analyse new types of data that will bring greater levels of clarity to their operations and new insights about how to improve production efficiency. The IoT was front and center at CES 2015, with many of the world’s top brands throwing their hats in the ring. We’ve also watched this trend grow and develop over the past few years through our Cool Idea! Award program — many of our own recent award winners (AMPY, Roambotics, and Garageio, to name a few) have an Internet of Things element to them.
This coming wave doesn’t just extend to consumer products: connected machines in the enterprise will be able to report required maintenance in real time, minimizing production delays caused by repair work, and the IoT will help American manufacturers (including us!) ensure their factories are operating in an energy efficient manner, so that they’re not just profitable, they’re sustainable, too.
Mass Customization: The greatest manufacturing revolution of the 19th and 20th centuries was mass production. Thanks to pioneers like Henry Ford, American businesses developed and perfected the science of efficiently producing the same parts repeatedly. We expect that the next revolution in manufacturing will be that of mass customization: the efficient production of parts and products uniquely customized by and for their users.
We’re just starting to see evidence of this trend emerging, with Amazon’s launch of its 3D Printing Store as an opening salvo. Mass customization will soon expand beyond the headlines that 3D printing made in 2014 to encompass a whole ecosystem of on-demand manufacturing, as advancements in technology make it easier for designers to have parts manufactured faster than ever before. For instance, we offer quick-turn manufacturing services using both subtractive and additive processes, allowing engineers and designers to have their creations in hand in a matter of days.
Education: As desktop 3D printers become increasingly popular and affordable, and 3D CAD software becomes more user-friendly and affordable (Google’s free SketchUp program is perfect for those just dipping their toes in the water; for the more advanced, Autodesk’s robust Fusion360 suite only costs $25 per month), designing new products will be more accessible than ever. We expect to see an uptick in interest from young innovators as they learn how to turn their inventive ideas into physical realities. In short, industrial design is becoming sexy again.
The New York Times noted earlier this year that top engineering schools are beginning to realize the importance of incorporating art into STEM education — the Rhode Island School of Design has gone so far as to rebrand it “STEAM”: science, technology, engineering, art and math. We expect this renewed interest in learning CAD design over code to carry over into the New Year, and to result in beautiful and innovative reimagining of our everyday products to give them a 21st century digital twist. We at Proto Labs are firm advocates of STEM education and provide many free educational resources to support this initiative.
We’re certainly optimistic about the future of our industry and confident that the trends we’re anticipating will bring positive change, but they are by no means guaranteed to happen. It will require the continued support of the U.S. government to make it possible for our industry to regain its competitiveness on a global scale. It will also require the involvement of American business, from the largest global corporations to the scrappiest garage startups, to embrace the 21st century wave of manufacturing technologies to keep their products fresh and innovative. Lastly, it will require the next generation of STEM talent to make an impact, applying fresh new methods of design thinking to encourage manufacturers to innovate from within.
All in all, the future of manufacturing looks bright and we are proud to be a part of it.