How Startups are Driving Innovation in Manufacturing

Photograph: NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center / Flickr

In 2012, the Economist used the term the “third industrial revolution” to describe the digitalization of manufacturing through the use of 3D printers. Since that time more than three years ago, it appears that the author’s words have rung true; manufacturing has indeed been revolutionized, and product innovation is burgeoning like never before.

The Influx of At-Home Manufacturing

A few decades ago, the idea of innovating a product at home and creating it in the backyard wasn’t too far-fetched. Fast forward to the early 2000s, and garage manufacturing was much less common; the industry was already too inundated with big names in manufacturing with the technological abilities and funding to control design and development on a large scale.

But now that’s all changing – with the advent of 3D printers, crowdfunding, and low-cost hardware and software, new life has been born into backyard building. In fact, 3D printing is becoming so successful that while it currently only generates $4.1 billion dollars of revenue (compared to $12.8 trillion in worldwide manufacturing activity), that number is estimated to grow to $21 billion by the year 2020.

Fueling an Increase in Innovation

3D printers, crowdfunding, crowdsourcing, and low-cost materials have leveled the playing field for at-home innovators. 3D printing is not only more affordable than ever, but it also offers significant advantages over more traditional manufacturing practices. No tooling is required to create objects, there’s little wasted material, and layers can be built over time as opposed to all at once.

And of course to help those who can’t fund their innovation and manufacturing dreams on their own, there’s crowdfunding and crowdsourcing. The former refers to the collection of monetary funds for a project from the ‘crowd;’ the latter refers to receiving ideas and creative skills. With outside funds and talents, those with an idea aren’t limited to dreaming big – they can create big, too. In fact, even larger companies are using crowdsourcing for idea generation – Audi has organized a variety of crowdsourcing competitions to gain competitive advantage in terms of efficiency in manufacturing.

The Future for Big Companies

The fact that small-time and at-home innovators will not be able to design and develop without the same resources of a large company doesn’t mean that big companies are on their way out; rather, it’s likely that big companies are here to stay, although changes to practices may occur. Teaming with small manufacturers is likely – big companies could use the innovation; small startups will benefit from the resources larger companies provide. And one thing is true within the manufacturing world: failure to remain competitive—in pricing, design, innovation, technology, and more—will result in business decline. As such, big companies will be forced to change the way they do business, make decisions, outsource work, innovate, and experiment.

The ability of startups to design and manufacture products like never before is likely to change the face of production on a global level. To keep up with changes in technology and more resources—from open source solutions to crowdfunding—both startups and established companies will have to rethink their methodologies.

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