We’ve all read the hype: Additive manufacturing, better known as 3D printing, promises a new dawn of clean, high-tech manufacturing. Libraries and schools across the land have raced to install 3D printers to teach children to make trinkets today and perhaps space ships tomorrow.
This technology has been around for more than three decades without noticeably transforming the world, but monumental advances in manufacturing are finally imminent, Richard D’Aveni argues in “The Pan-Industrial Revolution.” He envisions 3D printing combining with powerful software networks, machine learning and artificial intelligence to force vast changes in how and where products are made.
A few giant companies, he says, will create global “platforms” of digitized manufacturing technology, allowing them to make almost anything almost anywhere. They will “revolutionize the world economy in ways that most experts have failed to grasp,” writes Mr. D’Aveni, a professor at Dartmouth’s business school. He calls the new platforms “pan-industrials” and says they will dominate the world economy by attaining “flexibility, diversification, and size unheard of in the past.”
If you want to make a product in this brave new world, as Mr. D’Aveni imagines it, you will link up with one of 10 or so dominant global platforms. The platform will then arrange to have your product made, tested and distributed around the world. Who will create these mighty collectives? Among the contenders, Mr. D’Aveni sees General Electric, Siemens, HP, Dassault Systèmes, Sumitomo Heavy Industries and the contract manufacturer Jabil.
Mr. D’Aveni defines 3D printing as “any kind of production in which materials are built up to create a product rather than cut, ground, drilled, or otherwise reduced into shape.” The key is a computer program conveying a design to a printer-like device that creates a product, typically one thin layer at a time.
The future of manufacturing, in Mr. D’Aveni’s view, involves “farms” of 3D printers and related gear tended by robots. Based on information collected by the global platforms, devices endowed with artificial intelligence will decide pretty much on their own what to make and where. If a shortage of some part or material looms, the computers will automatically find alternative suppliers. In the meantime, the platforms will update or tweak product designs almost instantly in response to sales trends. They will test demand with small batches to see what sells.
In today’s world, manufacturers specialize because it is tricky to use the same factory to make, say, jet engines and toasters. Different products need different configurations of machinery and expertise; switching from one to another is expensive. But 3D printing farms, controlled almost entirely by software, will be able to make just about anything with minimal adjustments, Mr. D’Aveni believes. So pan-industrials will produce a vast variety of products, gaining “economies of scope” as well as the familiar economies of scale.
Of course, there are drawbacks, as Mr. D’Aveni concedes. Unemployment may soar as automation takes over. The pan-industrials may grow so powerful that they can squash competition and push around governments. In general, though, he expects the world to benefit from better goods, lower prices and less pollution.
Mr. D’Aveni has assembled some thought-provoking ideas about the implications of an important type of technology in which investment is rising fast. The problem is that he gets carried away by enthusiasm for his own dramatic visions. Too much of “The Pan-Industrial Revolution” reads like promotional material for 3D printing.
The author gushes about turboprop engines that GE plans to supply for Cessna Denali business airplanes. These engines, he writes, have been “redesigned for production via 3D printing.” His breezy description may cause the unwary reader to envision fully formed engines popping out of printers. In fact, GE says that only about a third of the engine’s contents will be made with 3D printing. The rest, involving about 2,000 parts, will be made with conventional tools. Some assembly required, to put it mildly. GE’s achievement is impressive but not quite so stupendous as Mr. D’Aveni suggests.
Wherever Mr. D’Aveni finds a company experimenting with 3D printing, whether in making an aircraft engine or a car, he extrapolates straight to smashing success and market domination. Writing about experiments that use the technology to make houses, he assures us that “3D printing allows for such precision that the assembly process is literally a snap.” Perhaps, but it is hard to believe that building houses will be quite as easy as stacking Legos anytime soon.
Mr. D’Aveni tells us that 3D printing is “increasingly being used for mass production of standardized products” but provides few examples. Good luck finding them at Walmart or Home Depot. For now, 3D printing is mainly used to make parts for various products or customized items, including medical implants and hearing aids. Terry Wohlers, a consultant who has tracked 3D printing for more than three decades, tells me that so far he sees no “big swing toward use of the technology for medium- or high-production volumes.”
Brushing aside more sober seers, Mr. D’Aveni says that only companies that dive deeply into 3D printing now have a chance to survive. “Go big or go home,” he writes. The rise of pan-industrials, he proclaims, is inevitable. Only in an epilogue does he acknowledge that his “imagined future . . . may not fully come to pass.” He adds: “If it turns out that I’ve read the tea leaves wrong, the reasons will likely lie with decisions being made by business leaders today.” In other words, if the revolution doesn’t happen, it’s their fault.