Lou Kren Lou Kren
Senior Editor

Centers and Microfactories—The New Paradigms

February 10, 2017

In basketball, the center used to be the most important position on the court. A center often was the largest player, patrolling the paint to block shots, clog the lane and gobble rebounds. On offense, the center was just as indispensable, a low-post presence used to occupy multiple defenders, score, rebound and put back shots, and occasionally form a barrier to give teammates a free path to the basket.

But that was then. Today, quickness and agility rules the court, not lumbering largesse. That’s the evolution of basketball. The superstars today are the guards and forwards on the court, or ‘tweeners’ that don’t fit under the typical position heading.

We see something similar in manufacturing. Builders of stuff have become more agile and quick-thinking. And, no longer a common sight is a huge plant—the center, in basketball terms—with huge equipment and huge employment numbers spitting out huge part runs. In fact, we are in the throes of what futurists have termed the Microfactory Revolution.

Whether this trend has long-term industry staying power, only time will tell, but it makes a lot of sense. Microfactories, placed close to user locations, produce increasingly customized low-volume JIT parts. 3D printing is a huge driver of this movement. Relatively inexpensive compared to traditional manufacturing processes from a capital-investment standpoint, additive manufacturing seemingly is in lockstep with the concept of microfactories.

With advantages related to cost, space, time, transportation and materials, the concept of microfactories migrated across the world from Japan more than two decades ago, and now has gained a foothold in the United States. With this development, entrepreneurs and other forward thinkers can serve customers in new ways and significantly impact supply chains. These are exciting times for the garage inventors and others in the maker community who historically have been at a disadvantage when seeking to penetrate mature and/or strong markets.

With its inherent agility and creativity related to ideas, products, processes and business paradigms, the maker community is well-suited to drive the microfactory revolution. This isn’t lost on industry stalwarts, who look to partner in making microfactories work.

One venerable manufacturer recognizing the need to leverage this undertapped talent is General Electric. You’re probably familiar with FirstBuild, the partnership between General Electric and Local Motors, a startup that 3D-printed an automobile. FirstBuild, with its first microfactory built in Louisville, KY, in 2015, “is a co-creation community that is changing the way products come to market. By letting a community influence the product from the very beginning, we can quickly deliver better products that improve the lives of our consumers,” the company’s website reads.

In its effort to evolve into what it terms a “digital industrial company,” GE is employing its vast engineering, design and manufacturing capabilities to back the maker community in an eclectic collection of projects. Consider that FirstBuild, in conjunction with RF Digital, has just launched the Wine Chiller, featuring a smart integrated bottle-management system, designed and prototyped through the use of FirstBuild’s collaborative open-innovation process. The product incorporates RF Digital’s Simblee technology and product-development methodology, which reportedly facilitates a simple path from rapid prototyping to mass production.

Read past the actual product—I’m guessing that GE isn’t tying its fortunes to the Wine Chiller—and focus on these phrases: “collaborative open innovation process,” “technology and product-development methodology,” and, “facilitates a simple path from rapid prototyping to mass production.” The maker community is working with a major global manufacturer to reshape how we design, build and deliver.

The same holds true in another recent announcement, where Local Motors and GE debuted Fuse, a new approach to manufacturing that claims to accelerates product and technology development by combining open innovation with small-batch manufacturing. The digital community for the Fuse model resides at fuse.ge.com. Here, say company officials, “entrepreneurs, scientists, coders, engineers, makers from around the world meet to solve product development challenges.” Fuse, too, has a microfactory component, including rapid prototyping, small-batch manufacturing and modular experimentation, that opened last year in Chicago.

Like a center on the basketball court, much of the manufacturing community has morphed into something completely new and scarcely recognizable. Though not certain where it all will lead, I’m excited to find out.

Industry-Related Terms: Additive manufacturing
View Glossary of 3D Metal Printing Terms

Technologies: Applications, Management


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