Small manufacturing gets interesting

Henry Ford’s assembly line is often regarded as an idea that changed manufacturing as we know it. And while other innovations—in materials, processes, management, automation—moved manufacturing to the point where it is today, there hasn’t been a true game changer since Ford aha moment. Yet today, there are interesting winds of change afoot in manufacturing—it is getting cool again.

The continually evolving world of additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, as some call it, is giving some pause as to how that technology will change how we make things. (Our Managing Editor, Leslie Langnau, covers this technology extensively on our website.) While I don’t see this technology replacing traditional manufacturing methods, it has plenty of fascinating applications, from the hobbyist market to prototyping to short runs of very specific products. And we’d be foolish to definitively call this a niche industry so early in its development. Time alone will tell what strides 3D printing will make and what effect it has on traditional manufacturing in the next 10 or 20 years.

Another fascinating trend to watch is how crowd sourcing may affect manufacturing, as well as the design and development of products. has gotten a lot of press for its unique way of creating products. This industrial design house pays members for their innovations. Online members submit ideas for new products, making this a new, better version of the old inventor/patent submission businesses that used to proliferate.

Ideas reside in several stages, including research, design and branding, allowing would-be inventors to harness the power of a community of interested designers, inventors and consumers. Products that are submitted are critiqued (picked over, sometimes harshly!) by members. Those ideas that the user community judges as most worthy are transformed into fleshed-out designs by Quirky engineers.

“We can build two products per week,” says Quirky’s head of engineering, John Jacobsen. “It may seem radical, and it is. The designs are not fully developed, but we are taking the community ideas to a certain level of refinement.”

These refined product ideas are then rendered and placed on the website for a sort of community design review. Through social media channels, Quirky promotes the concepts and people can critique or even pre-order the product before it’s officially available.

What does mean for the average design engineer? Pay attention to what’s going on. Get active, explore, experiment. For example, 3D printing is not just about automating proven processes. It lets you think outside the box and develop something you couldn’t before due to technology limitations. Use Quirky to advise, counsel, participate, learn, and cross-pollinate ideas.

Change doesn’t have to be scary. Revel in it, and use it to your advantage.

How are you using new tools in your design and manufacturing processes? Weigh in on Paul’s blog at the Engineering Exchange.

Paul J. Heney – Editorial Director

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