The results of a recent MoldMaking Technology magazine survey (January 2008) show “foreign competition” as the #1 challenge for the moldmaking industry. (Most readers of the magazine are from the U.S.) To many, this is not surprising, given what has been published on the subject over the past few years. Moldmakers, like many in the product development and manufacturing business, are afraid that the “bleeding” will continue.
What can be done to preserve and even grow manufacturing in the U.S.? One idea is to concentrate on the strengths of our nation and one of them is innovation. People in the U.S. have a wealth of ideas for new products. However, the risk of introducing a new product, or convincing investors to support it, can be daunting. Launching a new product can cost a staggering amount, so companies are usually very cautious when conceiving and rolling out something new.
New methods of manufacturing, such as additive fabrication (AF), provide the opportunity to introduce a new product—or parts that go into one—at a surprisingly low cost. AF does not require any tooling, so this removes one of the biggest costs, both in time and money. This does not help moldmakers, but it sure presents some interesting possibilities for those in the product development business. An example is Janne Kyttanen of Freedom of Creation. He and his company are able to design some consumer products in a day or two and begin to manufacture them by plastic laser sintering the following day.
With innovation as a strength, I predict that many designers, engineers, students and others will use modern software tools to create products that before were too difficult, expensive and risky to manufacture. They will create small quantities to test the market to determine whether a demand exists for what they’ve developed. And, they can make changes and improvements and personalize the product without much additional cost. AF can serve as the total solution for manufacturing or as a bridge to production tooling, should quantities require it.
As the custom manufacturing megatrend comes into full swing, those embracing AF for part production will be poised to ride this potentially large and lucrative wave.