Archive | July 2013

The Rise of Digital Manufacturing

Foxconn CEO, Terry Gou recently said that “3D printing is a gimmick.” Yes, that Foxconn – the world’s biggest mass manufacturer of electronic gadgets like smartphones and tablets. He went on to say that 3D printing “did not mean the advent of a third industrial revolution,” alluding to a 2012 Economist article about 3D printing and how it could reinvent manufacturing.

Even though Foxconn has been using 3D printing for nearly 30 years, Gou was not optimistic about the technology’s future, arguing it was unsuitable for mass production and did not have any real commercial value.

Is it at all surprising that Foxconn’s boss would downplay a technology which clearly has its sights set on mass manufacturing?

Mr. Gou said that while 3D printing might be able to manufacture a phone’s shell, it could not manufacture (or assemble) all of the phone’s inner-workings. While this is true, 3D printers are capable of printing some electronics, and breakthroughs in this area are likely to continue. According to the article, Gou also said that 3D printers were currently incapable of printing leather, leading to unsustainable products which could not be mass produced. Not exactly sure what was meant there, but let’s chalk it up to a translation error. Taken literally, it’s a bit bizarre.

For a moment let’s downplay Mr. Gou’s predictions. What if he’s wrong and 3D printing (digital manufacturing) does deliver on its potential? What if you could offer a huge number of products at nearly any location, with little or no supply chain cost? No commitment to mass production, no packaging, no logistics, no scrap, and no waste. Sounds great, but what about all the other important stuff like product quality, speed to market, and perhaps most importantly, the price of the product itself?

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