Whereas it once took a company seven to 10 years to bring a product to market, individuals and start-ups can now see their ideas hit the virtual shelves within two years. Such was the case for companies such as Pebble Technology, which raised more than $10 million on Kickstarter in May 2012 to create a smart watch with apps for fitness, music, and more, said Hardi Meybaum, CEO of GrabCAD, at “The Future of Work at The Garage,” an Apr. 4 program organized by General Electric (GE) as part of its Garages pop-up series. The global tour, which hit Washington, D.C., on Mar. 21 and runs through Apr. 9, comprises an open workshop stocked with digital fabrication tools—think rows of 3D printers adjacent to a CNC mill, a laser cutter, and more—and public sessions on advanced manufacturing technologies and the maker movement.
At the series’ April 4 seminar, a roster of public and private sector leaders in manufacturing and policy discussed their visions for the future of manufacturing in the U.S. and worldwide. Technologies such as additive manufacturing, rapid prototyping, and crowdsourcing are upending the traditional path of research and product development, fostering a climate of innovation that gives supply chains unprecedented speed and flexibility.
But change begets challenges that will require more than an update in manufacturing tools. Education, workforce training, job creation, and digital and physical infrastructure must also evolve.
“We are on the cusp of something new,” said Sreenivas Ramaswamy, a senior fellow at McKinsey Global Institute. “To truly exploit what’s happening, there are a few mindset shifts that we need to make,” such as looking beyond the traditional plant floor as a source for jobs and products.
Ramaswamy and Meybaum were joined by North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory; Reps. Tim Ryan (D-OH) and Tom Reed (R-NY) who co-chair the U.S. House Manufacturing Caucus; GE’s chief economist Marco Annunziata; Scott Case, co-founder and CEO of startup consultants Main Street Genome in D.C.; Justin Fishkin, chief strategy officer at the co-creation workshop Local Motors. The panels and one-on-one talks were moderated by Neil King, global economics editor for the Wall Street Journal.
Despite the speakers’ variety of perspectives and experiences, the discussions identified three trends that link the manufacturing evolution to how architects will learn, design, and build.
Education and Re-Training
Preparing more students for jobs in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields is important, but training them to collaborate and solve problems—a cross-disciplinary skill—is even more so as the U.S. outputs services and solutions in place of physical products. That extends to current tech professionals, who will require re-training as technology and automation change the nature of their jobs.
“We will still have lots of people on the factory floor,” GE’s Annunziata said, “but they will have to be more conversant with the technology because they will be working with the machines.” Meanwhile, he said, the country will need to implement social safety measures so that as new tech renders some jobs redundant, people will be supported while they re-train and transition. “It will be painful in the short term, but it’s the only way to create wealth in the long term.”
Location and Networks
The prevalence of 3D printing could lower barriers in cost, accessibility, and scalability to manufacturing to the point that one could print custom fittings for a large project on site rather than have them shipped from halfway around the world. But a more advanced digital infrastructure is required; for example, fiber optics could greatly improve institutions’ communications bandwidth for data management and flow.
The rapid data-sharing that is speeding up product manufacture and distribution also is centralizing its movers and shakers around innovation hubs nationwide. Case and other speakers pointed beyond Silicon Valley to startup communities in Chicago, New York, and of late, Washington, D.C., and Nashville.
“The more density there is and the more network[s] you can fall into … the more likely you are to find the resources you need to be successful,” said Case, whose D.C.-based team helps area startups and small businesses manage and grow their operations.
Patents and Intellectual Property
The process for protecting intellectual property isn’t keeping pace with turbo-charged manufacturing and distribution, the panelists said. As a result, entrepreneurs and manufacturers must often decide whether to surge ahead with production, exposing their ideas to competitors hungry to reverse engineer and likely evolve their product, or to wait for patent protection.
Until the patent process is revised to share the credit among multi-firm development teams, to account for the nuances of digital and community-sourced technology, and simply to be more streamlined, the panelists said, entrepreneurs—in the case of hardware, at least—should focus on getting to market first.
“Speed to market is more important than patent protection,” said the D.C.-based Fishkin, whose crowd sourced–design team in 2011 worked with the Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Project Agency to design and deliver a prototype of a high-performance military support vehicle in just over four months. “If you wait for all your patent protection, somebody’s going to build your product first.”