What will “the future of making things” deliver?

The future of making things – including in architecture, manufacturing and multimedia – was up for discussion at the recent Sydney AUx event. Brent Balinski spoke to Autodesk's Pat Williams and Scott Reese about some of the current disruptive forces in play and where they might lead us.

The future of manufacturing is anybody’s guess, but some are well-placed to tell us the direction in which things are heading.

Increased connectivity between people and machines and refinements in 3D printing are often mentioned as “game changers”, with both cited as examples of where another industrial revolution might come from.

In terms of current disruptive forces, Autodesk’s regional Senior Vice President, Pat Williams, has distilled it down to three major influences.

These are around the way things are produced, how they are consumed, and how they – and we – are connected.

The traditional model of trying to achieve economies of scale is less influential, Williams said at this month’s Autodesk University Extension event, which came to Australia for the first time ever.

Flexibility is more important than ever, and microfactories can re-tool nimbly, changing production runs for different products and consumer types. And a room full of students or a startup is “just as likely” to change the world as a multinational giant.

“One of the prohibitors to that has been the back-end, which is the manufacturing sector, which hasn’t had the ability to be as flexible as probably on the design side,” Williams told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“So when we talk about microfactories; I’ll use China again, just because I live there and it’s an easy one: you go into a production factory there and they’re putting together Macs. And in the afternoon they’re doing Dells.”

Expectations around consumption are becoming greatly different, with customisability, high-quality and quick responses from producers all growing in importance.

The line between hardware and software is blurring, according to Autodesk. Companies with origins in software (e.g. Google) are likely to also be manufacturers (for example in making smart thermostats or cars). The opposite is also true, with Williams citing Ford and its emphasis on software.

“You just look around and everything except for the Coke bottle and the glass, almost everything that we have that’s electronic that’s sitting on this desk can talk to one another,” Williams said.

“Hardware and software are tightly integrated and linked. And consumers are also expecting that their product capabilities are changing.”

Also, in terms of connectivity, the ability to collaborate using cloud services and to piggyback off others’ computing power will become more and more important.

Autodesk has long been pushing the advantages of “infinite computing” in simulation and elsewhere, and remains enthusiastic about the message.

“I still think we’re at our infancy as a human race around really leveraging the computing power we have,” Scott Reese, VP, Cloud Platforms, told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“But computational geometry can run and explore millions of designs instead of iterate on one, is one of the first things that we’ll see change.”

One aspect of production, 3D printing, is an area where Autodesk has made major announcements lately.

Long popular with the Maker movement, for example through their 123D free software and its acquisition of Tinkercad, the firm announced major plans to shake up 3D printing through its free, open-source platform Spark, in May.

Last month it proudly announced another initiative to help develop the additive manufacturing ecosystem: the $100 million Spark Investment Fund, backing innovators in hardware, software and marketing.

Interest in additive manufacturing is obviously high (growing at over 30 per cent CAGR globally over the last three years, according to the most recent Wohlers Report) but there is a lack of focus on creating a better environment for design and manufacturing, according to Autodesk.

“And that’s the intent there: to look for and encourage as many companies as possible, and how to contribute to that ecosystem,” Williams explained.

Described by 3dprint.com and others as to additive manufacturing what Android is to the smartphone, Autodesk hopes that the Spark ecosystem will, through its users’ developments, help make 3D printing more user-friendly and reliable.

“Because eventually we feel 3D manufacturing is going to transform the manufacturing space, and the things that are limiting it today are a lack of investment that we see out there and this will hopefully help facilitate that,” said Williams.

Whether it’s to do with trends in consumption, production or connectivity, the future of making things is exciting and there to be seized by the throat, believes Williams.

Whether you’re a startup or a multi-billion dollar business, the potential to change the world is there, according to Autodesk.

“Any company can be taken down overnight by an individual, because access to talent, access to capital, access to processing power is greater than it’s ever been before,” said Williams.

“And for most of you and most companies, you’re going to do more in the next ten years than most companies have been able to do in their entire lifetime.”


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