It looks like we've got some debate going in here on the merits and
feasibility of using fabbers ("rapid prototyping") for manufacturing. I had
dinner last night with some friends in the Internet business who had an
interesting insight on this subject. I'll be interested on the comments of
people on this list to these ideas.
One of the reasons the advent of the Internet has been so impactful is
what it does to the VALUE CHAIN for the distribution of products. One might
draw the modern, pre-Internet value chain as follows:
Manufacturer --> Wholesaler --> Distributor --> Retailer -->
What the Internet does is that it opens the opportunity for direct
interaction between the manufacturer and customer, so that the value chain
can be reconfigured:
Manufacturer --> Customer --> Manufacturer
The last link above reflects the fact that with the Internet the customer
has a greater opportunity to interact with and influence the manufacturer.
If I were writing this posting in a graphical medium, the above would be a
cycle from manufacturer to customer and back. The reduction of
intermediaries in the relationship between manufacturer and customer
eliminates costs and time from the distribution process, and improves
communication. The result is greater satisfaction of the customers' needs,
faster, and at lower cost.
The optimal structure is not always this fully collapsed value chain,
but there can be opportunities for an Internet intermediary that adds value
to the product or to the customer/manufacturer interaction:
Manufacturer --> Web portal --> Customer
But instead of going into details on this, let's change back to OUR
subject of the use of fabbers in manufacturing, and let's look at it from
this point of view of its effect on the value chain in the design and
manufacturing of products.
The idea is that what the Internet does to the value chain for the
DISTRIBUTION of products, the fabber does to the value chain for the
products' DESIGN AND MANUFACTURING.
So the value chain for manufacturing in the industrial era might be
Concept --> Prototype --> Tooling --> Production -->
Distribution --> Product
What the fabber does is eliminate the need for tooling and mass production
AND ALSO distribution because the customer (who may be a business or an
individual) may very well be operating the fabber on-site or at a local 3-D
Kinko's. Also the concept of a prototype becomes fluid because the customer
can iterate the product, try out each iteration, and either keep iterating
or stop iterating, depending on when satisfactory performance is achieved.
Which iterations are prototypes and which are products? Such semantic
distinctions are not important. The value chain becomes:
Concept --> Iteration --> Concept
where the last link, as in the above Internet example, would be shown as a
cycle if I were writing in a graphical environment.
Now I'm sure a lot of people on the list are getting ready to respond to
this by arguing that for most products a complete and ready-to-use product
cannot be made on a fabber because of limitations in materials, the need for
assembly of mechanisms, and the high cost of operating fabbers. To all those
people, I ask you to think back to the days of the Model T Ford and ask
yourself if you could have foreseen interstate freeways (autobahns) and
suburban shopping malls. Think back to IBM's first computer, the 650, and
ask if you could have foreseen the Internet. Think back to Goddard's first
suborbital rocket launch and ask if you could have foreseen people walking
on the moon. Of course today's fabbers cannot make even a small fraction of
the catalog of modern products enjoyed by people around the world. But
tomorrow's fabbers will.
The next step in this discussion could be to look at what happens to the
total product value chain when you combine the effects of both fabbers and
the Internet. I'll leave that for another posting.
Ennex Corporation, Los Angeles, USA, (310) 824-8700
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