Strategist Guide to Digital Fabrication

Source: Strategy and Business, Autumn 2011
PDF available HERE.

digital fabrication tools have limits. Currently, they are best suited to production runs of 1,000 items or less. Although a few high-end routers and cutters are fast enough to produce dozens of products in an hour, 3-D printers can’t yet make goods with the same speed as traditional injection molding.

digitally enabled open source manufacturing is changing the way people think about the production and use of goods. As Eric von Hippel, a professor of technological innovation at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, put it in his book Democratizing Innovation (MIT Press, 2005): “User-centered innovation processes offer great advantages over the manufacturer-centric…systems that have been the mainstay of commerce for hundreds of years. Users that innovate can develop exactly what they want, rather than relying on manufacturers to act as their (often very imperfect) agents. Moreover, individual users do not have to develop everything they need on their own: they can benefit from innovations developed and freely shared by others.”

This change is likely to translate into greater levels of product and process innovation. Von Hippel notes that “users were the developers of about 80 percent of the most important scientific instrument innovations, and also the developers of most of the major innovations in semiconductor processing.” And it will make supply chains more robust: As small shops and home shops come online and share information, networks of vendors grow more dense, more diverse, and less dependent on any one supplier or region.

Limor Fried, founder of Adafruit, notes that you can sell 2,000 of anything on the Internet with little effort. If you can finance development by planning a run that size, you can innovate at a profit. Digital fabrication tools make it easy to swap in new features, change the production line, or restart production of old products if demand resurfaces. In this environment, it’s helpful to think of product planning as designing a continuous information flow, rather than designing separately launched objects.

Deploy the new tools to help consumers adapt and personalize their products, and use this to learn about their unspoken wants and needs. 

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