1. Never Stop Learning
In our continuing series on Manufacturing Business Growth, we’re turning our attention today to technology and the ability to alter or end entire industries. My goal in this installment is to both inspire you to never stop learning and watching for things that may alter your business and, perhaps if you’re not up on the latest, shock you about where our world is headed.
I have written extensively about the need for manufacturers to re-invest in their businesses and why you should remain competitive. Manufacturers who don’t, usually close. Although having current equipment is vital, and there is so much information available on the subject, I don’t feel the need to revisit it. Rather, I’d like to take a peek into the future and discuss how emerging technologies might dramatically alter manufacturing and other industries.
2. Why the Fear of Technology Will Minimize Value
I’ll start with a story of a recent visit to a jewelry manufacturer to drive home the importance of the subject. I met with the current owner of a company that was over 100 years old (the company, not the owner). He is a master craftsman and had thousands upon thousands of molds for every type of jewelry imaginable. His work was impressive by any standard. I was there to discuss the possible sale of his ongoing business. In a discussion about why the business was in decline, I learned that most jewelry mold making is now done by 3D printing. The molds could now be made in a fraction of the time of traditional methods.
Most of his competitors had already moved to this newer technology, and he could not compete with his older methods. He showed me a product brochure for an ideal 3D printer used primarily in the jewelry industry. When I asked why he had not upgraded, he said, “I hate computers.” The moral of the story is that it will be next to impossible to sell this operation as an ongoing entity because it’s not investing in new technology to create business growth!
3. Is 3D Printing a Disruptive Technology?
So where am I going with this? If you love your business and want to ensure its continuity, it is imperative that you understand how emerging technologies might change your industry. Let’s stay on the subject of 3D printing for a moment. What else can you make with these machines? Basically, if you can draw it, you can make it. A recent Bloomberg Business Week article states:
“The unique qualities of 3D printers result in objects that would be near-impossible to create by any other means. You can, for instance, order a ball inside a ball, inside a ball, inside a ball.”
“There are other items that have 70 moving parts but are printed as one single piece,” says Peter Weijmarshausen, CEO of Shapeways, as he pulls a 3D-printed bikini out of a box. It’s made not of fabric but rather interlaced rings of plastic woven together by the 3D printers. The company sells about 100,000 objects per month; most popular are jewelry, iPhone covers, and model trains.
“While the process still requires handwork today, it’s quickly becoming faster, cheaper, and more automated, which opens the technology up to new customers.
Already companies such as Mercedes (DAI), Honda (HMC), Boeing (BA), and Lockheed Martin (LMT) use 3D printers to fashion prototypes or to make parts that go into final products. The technology has broadened out to attract vacuum maker Oreck and Invisalign, which produces custom braces for teeth.
Microsoft also uses a 3D printer to help design computer mice and keyboards. “A person who buys a BMW will want a part of the car with their name on it or to customize the seats to the contours of their bodies,” says Abe Reichental, chief executive officer at 3D Systems. “We’re printing with chocolate in our research labs today, so Godiva might print a candy bar with your face on it. The possibilities are only limited by our imagination.”
3D printing techniques have also been scaled up to allow construction of large structures. The first 3D-printed building has been constructed by D-shape, a company that utilizes granular sand to generate artificial sandstone structures, with reduced construction times and costs.
If your manufacturing company currently provides machined parts to any of the industries mentioned, this will ultimately affect you. I read an interesting assessment of the “Disruptive Potential” of 3D printing in a government report from the UK:
The mass-commercialization of 3D printing could transform current models of manufacturing, facilitating a move towards distributed manufacturing and increased personal customization of products. For industry, advances in printing technology that allowed low-cost printing of electronics could drive down the cost of consumer electronics. In addition, 3D printing technology could move into non-traditional fields including rapid prototyping of food.
4. Printing Weapons with 3D Printers
In July of 2012, Popular Science magazine reported that an amateur gunsmith by the name of Michael Guslick had created “a working assault rifle from a 3D printer.” It actually worked!
As I’m sure you know, all firearms sold in the US require a unique serial number. A firearms manufacturer must be licensed by the federal government and the parts are carefully secured and tracked under penalty of law. So Mr. Guslick will not be able to sell his creations anytime soon.
However, the implications of this are mind-boggling. As a girl whose southern ancestors made and sold moonshine during the prohibition … Ok, so we’re not in “gun prohibition” … yet! I will leave the discussion of the attempt by some to trample on the 2nd amendment for another article. But … I just bet some of you are chuckling at the moonshine connection! I digress … it’s my part rebel heritage.
5. What might 3D printing do to other industries?
If parts can be made almost instantly, right where they are needed, what happens to the transportation industry? Did you just “re-think” your stock portfolio? The implications of staying abreast of current technology apply to your retirement savings as much as to your manufacturing company.
Let’s talk about Carbon Nanotubes and Graphene. A range of carbon-based nanomaterials exists with applications in molecular electronics, sensing, micro- and nano-electronic mechanical systems, and energy. Graphene and carbon nanotubes have received a lot of media attention.
Graphene is a two-dimensional structure of carbon packed into a honeycomb lattice, like a single isolated layer of graphite. The structure of Graphene gives it interesting electronic properties; in particular, the zero-mass of its electrons promises rapid conduction of electricity at room temperature, estimated at 100 times that of silicon, with applications for high-speed devices that could replace silicon-based technologies.
Other potential applications include chemical sensing instruments, biosensors, ultra capacitance devices, and flexible displays. Fiat has taken out a patent on the use of carbon nanotubes in motor vehicle components to produce parts, which have integrated sensor ability. The patent mentions fuel tanks, pipes, seats, and bumpers as possible applications.
6. How about Atmospheric Energy?
Most of the energy we produce today comes from fossil fuels. What if we could tap into the free electricity in the air and clouds all around us, such as is evident in a thunderstorm? One company working to make the development of atmospheric energy viable is SEFE, Inc. They already have 4 patents approved, 3 pending, and 19 more on the way. You can view a corporate video showcasing SEFE’s mission here.
Check this out from MIT’s Technology Review:
Injectable Tissue Engineering: “Every year, more than 700,000 patients in the United States undergo joint replacement surgery. The procedure in which a knee or a hip is replaced with an artificial implant is highly invasive, and many patients delay the surgery for as long as they can.
Jennifer Elisseeff, a biomedical engineer at Johns Hopkins University, hopes to change that with a treatment that does away with surgery entirely: injectable tissue engineering. She and her colleagues have developed a way to inject joints with specially designed mixtures of polymers, cells, and growth stimulators that solidify and form healthy tissue. “We’re not just trying to improve the current therapy,” says Elisseeff. “We’re really trying to change it completely.”
“Elisseeff is part of a growing movement that is pushing the bounds of tissue engineering, a field researchers have long hoped would produce lab-grown alternatives to transplanted organs and tissues. For the last three decades, researchers have focused on growing new tissues on polymer scaffolds in the lab.
While this approach has had success producing small amounts of cartilage and skin, researchers have had difficulty keeping cells alive on larger scaffolds. And even if those problems could be worked out, surgeons would still have to implant the lab-grown tissues.
Now, Elisseeff, as well as other academic and industry researchers, are turning to injectable systems that are less invasive and far cheaper. Many of the tissue-engineering applications to reach the market first could be delivered by syringe rather than implants, and Elisseeff is pushing to make this happen as soon as possible.”
7. What To Do When Facing New Technologies
Here again, we have emerging technologies that may forever alter a variety of different manufacturing sectors. If you are in a sector that may change dramatically, what should you do? You have two choices if you want to stay in business. Dive in and embrace the new technology … or re-position your company in a different industry. If you’ve only done automotive stamping for the last 20 years and you see it coming to an end, ask yourself what else can be made with your existing equipment.
Can you gain traction within a different sector BEFORE you become an old dinosaur in the one you’re in? If you’re a manufacturer of artificial implants, you need to think about what you’re going to do next. Don’t wait to develop a plan B until the folks at John’s Hopkins have made your entire industry obsolete!
The “what to do next” issue will be the subject of a whole new series, but for now, I want to stay on the current subject of keeping current with technology.
I think I’ve made the point of the importance of knowing what’s coming down the pike. I could write volumes on new technologies and how they might affect different industries, (and probably will). But, better for me to share with you some ideas and places where you might find the information yourself on a regular basis. I suggest setting time aside each week to surf the net for the latest. Here are a few informative places you might enjoy viewing:
- Tech News World http://www.technewsworld.com
- MIT’s www.Technologyreview.com
- National Science Foundation http://www.nsf.gov
- New Scientists http://www.newscientist.com
If you are more of a visual person, check out Pinterest … yes, Pinterest! It’s not just where your wife posts her favorite fashions and recipes. It’s quickly becoming a place where people spread the word about cutting edge technologies. Or simply do a Google search for the latest in a particular field.
In addition to the more formal news outlets, there are legions of bloggers like me that can link you to subject matter that you might not otherwise find. The point is to put forth the effort to keep yourself informed! Do you know of a great web site that informs on new technology? Share it with us in the comment section below!
Next month we will be taking a look at the importance of diversification of your customer base. I’ll share some great stories from both the auction and business brokerage side of our business. I’ll tell you nightmare tales of manufacturing companies that we had to auction off because their one customer went belly-up. Also, inspiring stories about companies that sold for millions because they understood the importance of diversification! Until then….thanks for reading!
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