Manufacturing Redefined

Profound changes in manufacturing are on their way. Glimpses of what lies ahead were apparent at the 2012 International Manufacturing Technology Show.


Inspired by what I saw at IMTS 2012, I am rethinking my definition of manufacturing. This industry is changing. The very nature of manufacturing may be altered by these changes. Hence the need to redefine it. I used to say that manufacturing is “the business of making stuff.” Stuff can mean gobs of stuff (volumes of product processed as a commodity such as fuel, chemicals, plastic pellets, foodstuffs and so on) or pieces of stuff (discrete parts, mostly components for assemblies such as durable goods). Of course, metalworking has primarily focused on the part-making side.
I like this old formula because it emphasizes that manufacturing is a business—an enterprise serving customers in some gainful way. The equipment and techniques involved have to be evaluated in this larger context. They are not strictly ends in themselves. For example, it is pointless to discuss a new, highly productive machining process, let’s say, if the results are not shown to provide a clear business benefit such as increased profit or customer satisfaction.
This definition of manufacturing (the business of making stuff) is still valid and relevant. I’m not giving it up. However, the show in Chicago made me see a more comprehensive characterization of manufacturing, at least for part making. It is this: manufacturing is the fulfillment of ideas through the transformation of material. This definition is useful because it identifies a different starting point and implies a different endpoint. My old definition indicated that manufacturing starts with incoming raw materials and ends with finished products on the shipping dock.
Now we must recognize that manufacturing is becoming the direct connection between the product designer and product consumer. In this case, manufacturing starts with an idea (from the designer) and ends with acceptance of a product by the user. The intervention of a conventional manufacturing organization (a stuff-making company) may or may not be necessary. Manufacturing is escaping the business-to-business, supply-chain model and shifting to a designer-to-desirer model. This model is clearly emerging when you look at how additive manufacturing processes can be applied to on-demand production of parts customized to the specs of the end user.
To be clear, this shift certainly does not spell the end of manufacturing as we know it. However, it is the beginning of manufacturing as we do not know it.
Where this trend may lead is yet to be to discerned or discovered. Crowd-sourcing and open-source collaborative ventures such as the Local Motors endeavor in the Emerging Technology Center at IMTS gave us a glimpse of what may become the norm. Other creative and imaginative possibilities still unthought of will surely appear.
What to do now? Think boldly, even wildly. Question your most basic assumptions about manufacturing. Manufacturing will not be “business” as usual. The “making” processes will not be the same. Our raw materials and end products will be a very different sort of “stuff,” too.