Reshoring is Just the Beginning

By Jordan Brandt (@gordobia), Manufacturing Technology Futurist

Our industrialized origins burn somewhere in the bellows of a late 18th century English mill, powered by a river that doubled as a highway. The advent of Newcomen’s steam engine (and, of course, electricity) enabled us to build factories away from rivers, but manufacturing was never fully uncoupled from major cities and expansive transportation networks. However, this axiom of industrialization is slowly changing. As we read in the headlines, the reshoring of manufacturing back to the U.S. is a very real thing. However we believe it’s a symptom of a much larger global trend towards distributed manufacturing.

Cheaper domestic energy, rising overseas wages, environmental concern and increased transportation costs are among the primary factors encouraging many companies, such as GE and Lenovo, to bring some sectors of production back (think big bulky stuff, like appliances and industrial equipment). Furthermore, technologies like additive manufacturing (3D printing) are accelerating this pace with the promise of regional, municipal or even in-home production for some of the things we use. Someday, we might even receive raw material for our 3D printers as a utility like water, electricity and data (for more on that, consult Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age).

Whereas there are more industrial examples of this trend, Staples is making an interesting consumer play with its Easy 3D service to “provide everyone access to lifelike, photorealistic 3D printed products at an affordable price” according to Oskar Pakasi of Staples Printing Systems Division. It’s a great marketing line but the real beauty is just how seamlessly it fits within their business model and supply chain. The Mcor machines they employ use standard A4 or letter paper, printed in full color, glued layer by layer and cut precisely into shape with a carbide blade.  If there is anything that Staples knows how to buy and sell, it’s paper.  Now before you dismiss what useful objects one can make with wood pulp, I encourage you to sit in your particle-board Ikea chair and ponder for a while, perhaps while wearing this:

Bicycle helmet printed on Mcor Matrix 300

The distinction between reshoring and distributed manufacturing is important: it’s not just that manufacturing is coming back to the U.S., but more that it is simply coming closer to wherever the consumer may be. And just like buying locally grown food, it suggests a more sustainable and profitable enterprise, all while offering a better user experience.

Unfortunately, the rhetoric is high and the research is light, so Autodesk will be working on a project this summer to quantify more of the details. Stay tuned for more!