Darcy is the CEO at Buttonsmith Inc., using software and networks to rebuild US manufacturing for the 21st century, currently crowdfunding.
For centuries, progress has been driven by innovation and the reworking of old processes to meet changing demands and circumstances. Despite technological advancements in the speed and reliability of mass production, manufacturing has largely depended on the same fundamental processes as it did 100 years ago. As the CEO of a manufacturing company that builds software and systems to make digital manufacturing possible, I think it’s time to enter a new era of production that completely reimagines how — and what — can be created for public consumption.
Henry Ford: A Case Study In Revolutionary Production Methods
When Henry Ford developed assembly-line mass production, it was a miracle of enhanced productivity. No longer did an individual craftsman have to master every part of the production process and painstakingly create each unique item. Instead, it became possible to create a blueprint for a product (in Ford’s case, the automobile) and follow a standardized process to see its manufacture through from start to finish. This way, companies were far less limited by time, labor and skill. As long as they had the materials, they could recreate the same product over and over again to meet the ever-increasing consumer demand.
However, what we gained in efficiency, we lost in product customizations and responsiveness to the needs of the customer. Mass manufacturing only works when you’re making large quantities of the same thing. Customers have to hope that the mass-produced product comes close enough to what they need.
Bringing automobiles to the masses didn’t just change manufacturing — it changed our entire society. The way we invested in infrastructure changed. All of these changes took place in a very short amount of time, showing just how much business innovation could affect our culture.
The Impact Of Digital Manufacturing
There is widespread agreement that technology will drive changes in how we manufacture goods. What’s less obvious — yet just as important — is that technology will drive changes in what gets manufactured. In turn, this will have a huge impact on society at large. The availability of previously sparse or costly products will increase, allowing more people to enjoy personalized products that were previously out of reach.
The transformation we’re facing in manufacturing is widely seen as a newfound focus on automation, in which we remove people from the factory floor and replace them with machines. This perception is partially true, but it doesn’t take into account the bigger picture. More specifically, it ignores what happens when we shift to software-driven manufacturing (as opposed to traditional bespoke hardware automation). The way you approach making a million identical objects and the way you approach making one copy of a million different objects isn’t the same. Digital, software-driven manufacturing creates an opportunity to build manufacturing operations that can do both tasks with equal agility.
That ability to pivot in this way means that, as market conditions change, the things we manufacture can change as well. For example, during the initial months of the Covid-19 pandemic, my business found that people bought fewer lanyards to carry ID badges for work and school. However, because of “pandemic puppies,” they bought more dog collars and leashes. These are just two examples of large societal shifts affecting the way we produce and consume things. In the case of Covid-19, being able to change production on the fly could be critical to business survival in a fast-changing environment. However, many industries struggled to adjust quickly with antiquated production systems.
Since software-driven manufacturing can speed up responsiveness to customers, it’s possible to take greater advantage of the lean manufacturing notion of pull. In other words, manufacturers can choose to produce only when requests for a product are made, thereby reducing the excess cost and waste of mass-producing to meet fluctuating demands. This way, virtually any product can be made to order and delivered in the same amount of time it would take the consumer to get a premade item shipped from a warehouse. Consequently, manufacturers can expect to dramatically reduce inventory carrying costs in addition to decreased waste, decreased risk, as well as the increased ability to experiment, innovate and incorporate customer responses. In short, digital manufacturing and factory digitalization are positioned to introduce a whole new age of mass customization.
Digital manufacturing requires rethinking baseline assumptions about both how you manufacture and what you manufacture. Existing practices are tuned for inflexible hardware, large batch sizes and scale as the key to efficiency. But if the equipment and software are capable of making each item individually as efficiently as you can make a million of the same item, then making exactly what’s needed in a single piece when the customer needs it is a more efficient approach. This isn’t just swapping a slightly more automated machine in where a person was; this is rethinking entire supply chains. This shift is a bit like the difference between printing on letterpresses and printing on laser printers.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, we stand on the precipice of a new era, with the advantages of mass production, as well as the precision and customization of the artisan era. In my view, there are currently two central barriers to innovation: a lack of capital and an overreliance on legacy systems. This means that many manufacturers feel stuck in a perpetual loop that keeps them from investing in the next generation of manufacturing software and processes.
In order to overcome the issues of lack of capital, business leaders may have to think outside the box. Consider starting a crowdfunding campaign so that your customers can provide the capital you need. You might also consider taking advantage of loans to invest or work to find nontraditional investors who can see the possibilities that are opening up. I think it’s time to invest in the future and make digital manufacturing the new foundation of our global economy.