Moving Manufacturing Forward: How Letting Go Of The Past Can Drive Manufacturing Transformation

06 Jun 2022 | Jonah Myerberg

Everybody knows the saying, “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” But what if you build a better way to build a mousetrap? Will the world still come knocking? For many manufacturers, the answer may be no—or at least not right away.

Although the Biden administration recently launched Additive Manufacturing Forward (AM Forward), a program intended to drive wider adoption of additive manufacturing as a way to shore up domestic supply chains, many industries have—at least thus far—been relatively slow to adopt the technology, despite broad evidence of the benefits.

One explanation may lie with the “sunk cost fallacy.” First described by economist Richard Thaler, the sunk cost fallacy explains why people keep at a particular project or continue a particular behavior, even if it’s not necessarily beneficial—they’ve already devoted a certain amount of time or money to it.

Have you ever ordered a meal you didn’t like at a restaurant but finished it anyway to make sure you got your money’s worth? Or sat through to the end of a bad movie just because you had already watched the beginning? That’s the sunk cost fallacy in action.

In manufacturing terms, it helps explain why many companies have been slow to invest in technologies like 3D printing, despite recognizing the benefits. They’ve already spent money—in some cases millions—on traditional equipment like CNC machines or casting furnaces and want to ensure they get their money’s worth before investing more in other equipment.

To help companies break out of that mindset, the AM industry can take three steps.

1. Emphasize the changing nature of manufacturing and how AM fits in that picture.

2. Highlight its far-reaching benefits.

3. Encourage more—and earlier—training in the technology.

A Digital Revolution In Manufacturing

The reality for manufacturers today is this: The way we make things is changing.

While digital tools have long had a place on the factory floor, new technologies like smart sensors, robotics and artificial intelligence have begun accelerating the digitization of manufacturing in recent years, and AM is at the heart of the transformation.

To keep up with that transformation, companies need to think of AM as a requirement, not a luxury, or else risk being left behind. Among the most significant ways AM drives the digitization of manufacturing is through eliminating tooling. With no need to create tooling, companies across a host of industries—from oil and gas extraction to consumer goods—are able to go directly from digital design to physical parts in a single step, enabling far greater flexibility and efficiency.

While that efficiency is driving some of the early investment in AM, it’s only the start when it comes to the benefits. Whether it’s the ability to create highly-complex geometries, mass customization of parts, assembly consolidation or more, there are myriad reasons companies may turn to AM.

Once they do, the results can be transformational. Once more familiar with the technology, companies can quickly realize the benefits that AM delivers.

Benefits Beyond The Bottom Line

The benefits of investing in AM, however, go far beyond increased productivity and profit.

Recent studies have suggested AM could play a key role in reshoring jobs by allowing companies to move production away from massive industrial centers to more local manufacturing. As many as 1.5 million jobs, particularly among middle-skilled workers, could find their way back to the U.S., according to some estimates. By helping to revitalize domestic manufacturing, the same study found, AM could help boost annual GDP by as much as 15%.

At the same time, AM could help push the manufacturing industry in a greener direction. By enabling more localized production, the technology allows manufacturers to build shorter, greener supply chains.

Printing can also have a significant impact on waste. With the ability to now print parts from a wide variety of materials, including metal, polymer and even wood, AM is enabling the creation of a circular economy in which parts are highly recyclable, eliminating the need for ever-greater supplies of raw materials.

Already, AM is delivering sustainability benefits, with printed packaging helping to curb the use of single-use plastics to lower emissions by reducing the need to ship materials and parts around the world.

Educating The Next Generation

Ultimately, though, one of the key factors driving the adoption of AM isn’t the benefits that come with the technology but whether the technology finds its way into classrooms.

For decades, engineers were trained to take manufacturability into their designs—parts were created not only for a particular application but for efficient and inexpensive production. That process often led to compromises: If complex features made parts more difficult or expensive to produce, they were often eliminated in favor of simpler designs.

Increasing education at the college—and even the high school—level can help reduce or even eliminate those challenges. If engineers know AM is an option and understand how to design parts for printing, complex parts which were once considered difficult—if not outright impossible—to produce could become commonplace.

As more and more engineers enter the workforce with AM training, they will serve as advocates for the technology, driving further adoption as the manufacturing industry adapts to meet those needs.

AM’s Bright Future

While AM adoption has so far been slow, there are signs of change on the horizon. In recent years, the AM market has exploded, from an estimated value of $6 billion in 2016 to more than $26 billion in 2022, and that growth is predicted to continue for the rest of this decade.

For companies able to take advantage of that potential, the future would seem bright indeed—perhaps bright enough to upend the age-old adage of what goes into building better mousetraps.

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