Talking about the death of manufacturing

Is 3D printing going to do away with manufacturing employment? Brent Balinski spoke to Asimov Ventures’ Tyler Benster about a provocative suggestion.

As productivity goes up, the number of man-hours needed to make something goes down. It’s not always a comfortable thing to acknowledge, but it’s one of the reasons manufacturing will probably employ fewer people in total as time goes on.

Pessimists might point to the famous old quote, attributed to Warren Bennis:

“The factory of the future will have only two employees: a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.”

Taken to its logical conclusion, a gradual removal of the labour input will mean a factory floor eventually staffed by zero people.

Tyler Benster, partner at 3D printing and robotics venture firm Asimov Ventures, calls it The Death of Manufacturing.

“So if you think about manufacturing as a [word] and as its Latin roots would indicate, labour is a key input for the production of a good, a key input in the variable cost of production,” Benster toldManufacturers’ Monthly ahead of the Inside 3D Printing Sydney event.

“And the world that I see us transitioning towards is one in which labour is no longer an input in the variable cost of production. Now that has, I think, some fairly dramatic second- and third-order effects.”

Reasons for this transition include enablers such as 3D printing, which Benster has been obsessed with since he read an article on engineer Hod Lipson’s “Desktop Factory” in Popular Science, about a decade ago. This was followed by an effort at 16 to build his own desktop machine, a RepRap Darwin.

Anyway, Benster believes that manufacturing, at least as we know it, “will die”.

The coroner’s report might cite new additive manufacturing technologies, able to do things far more interesting than build up ABS plastic tchotchkes at excruciatingly slow speeds.

Available recently or soon are printers able to print in conductive inks and plastics, as well as with far greater speed and part strength/quality than previously possible.

Hype down, usefulness up

Despite his young age, Benster is a respected industry observer, a regular presenter at the Inside 3D Printing Series and a contributor to the highly influential Wohlers Report.

He agrees with the notion that additive manufacturing is far more interesting now than when it was exciting, such as in 2012 (a “tipping point” year) when books and magazine articles were feverishly promising “a new industrial revolution”.

Two of the reasons are the Carbon (formerly Carbon3D) M1 machine, made available this month, and HP’s Multi-Jet Fusion, to be released later this year.

Both are heavily geared towards industrial customers, rather than the maker community.

Carbon recently told Computer World that its printer, which uses UV light to cure isotropic (rather than layered) parts, is competitive with traditional manufacturing for production-ready runs of up to 45,000. Its speed is claimed to be up to 100 times faster than methods such as polymer jetting.

The machines are offered on a subscription basis. The company’s range of products includes nine proprietary resins offering things like heat deflection up to 219 degrees Celsius and elastomer properties.

With industries such as automotive producing smaller runs, Benster predicts Carbon and other printer manufacturers will change the way finished parts are produced. Car companies, the earliest adopters of additive manufacturing – are certainly taking notice, and Ford was among Carbon’s early partners.

“And so [an auto company] produces one part – and this is a figure I’ve heard of a recent part – and to cover all the models they need 24 different moulds for a four-part assembly because there are six different configurations of this part it may need to be in,” explains Benster.

“This is for a car that is sold in quantities of 30 or 40,000. So you can imagine that instead of creating all those moulds and having all that lead time and all that expense, that they can just produce these individual pieces on demand and there’s a tremendous cost saving to be had.”

Benster predicts that HP will also catch many manufacturers off-guard, describing it as fairly analogous to selective laser sintering, a superior replacement in terms of quality, and with more than ten times the speed.

“[And] if you look at the actual cost structure of a 3D printed good, machine amortisation is a major component of the cost, perhaps as much as 20 to 30 per cent,” he said.

“And so reducing the machine amortisation part of the good by perhaps ten times overnight will have a dramatic impact as to the calculation of if traditional manufacturing makes sense or if it makes sense with [3D printing].”

Though it may not replace injection moulding (for large quantities, at any rate) or casting in the near future, additive manufacturing will start to eat into some of the more traditional manufacturing areas.

In plastic, for example, there’s plenty to attack: over 300 million metric tons globally a year, points out Benster.

Ready to fly

And it’s even starting to make its way into metal parts for aerospace, a challenging task for certification and other reasons.

This month Alcoa and Airbus announced that printed titanium fuselage and engine pylon components would feature on planes, with the first delivery of parts for mid-this year. Another landmark for April 2016 was the delivery of the first LEAP-1A engine (with 19 3D printed super-alloy nozzles) to Airbus for its A320 neo.

As for what this all means for jobs, the use of more automated means of production (in this case, additive manufacturing) will not, in aggregate, add workers to the factory floor.

Employment levels in manufacturing (at least counting the production component) have been heading downwards in developed countries since the GFC. This has fed fears about the effects of automation on jobs, with the recovery in manufacturing jobs not matching the overall economic recovery.

Advancements in technology will continue to remove the human element from production, and this is what Benster means by his provocative title. He likens this to the wave of offshoring in animation. Production was later digitised and then re-shored.

“Manufacturing in the future will not involve labour, that’s the story that’s happening right now,” he said.

“However, I do think that we’ll see better designed products, more products, and more opportunities to have people involved on the design side, even as the actual act of producing becomes commoditised.”

Tyler Benster’s presentation, The Death Of Manufacturing, will take place 11:45 am to 12:30 pm on May 11, Day 1 of Inside 3D Printing Sydney.

Click here for more information.

 

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