What the Cloud Has Done to Enterprise IT, 3D Printing Will Do to Manufacturing and Supply Chain [Video]

Ian McCullough

Manufacturing and Supply Chain Managers: you didn’t really think that the storm was going to be limited to the Information Technology department, did you?

Making the software and databases that you depend on to make your plants and fulfillment more efficient has been a nice start, but you have been aware that this is just the tip of the iceberg…right?

You’re next

Outsourcing manufacturing to third parties eliminated the need for businesses to run their own factories. The next step is outsourcing manufacturing directly to customers. Factories will be a thing of the past. So will warehouses and inventory. When someone needs a physical object, the notion of “just in time” manufacturing will take on a whole new meaning; they’ll download a design and just make it themselves.

A Popular Mechanics profile of the Fab@Home open source 3D printing project.

Affordable 3D printing is already putting small-scale factories directly into people’s offices and homes. Once everyone has a multipurpose factory in their living room, there’ll be a lot less need for fancy facilities. For a comparison, I think we’re at “personal computing circa 1980″ and I would contend that personal computing didn’t become “mainstream” until circa 1995.  3D printing is probably a minimum of 10-15 years from being really mainstream.

Think, however, about a few of the ways that personal computers have done to the world economy since 1980:

  • They wiped out the need for millions of jobs in clerical functions like administration, filing, accounting, and archiving.
  • They made mathematical modeling way faster. That made it easier to predict things and consequently waste much less.
  • When paired with a modem initially and then later a direct Internet connection, they made written communications instantaneous.

Consider now what cloud computing has done since the turn of the millennium:

  • It has eliminated the need for in-house rack servers.
  • With no capital required for buying hardware, it has greatly reduced barriers-to-entry for Internet-based businesses.

What will 3D printing do in the years to come?

  • It will enable personalization and customization to a previously unimaginable degree. People are already making a stunningly diverse range of things – from cake toppers to human cartilage.
  • It will wipe out the need for millions of logistics and transportation jobs. The only things that will need planes, trains, ships, and trucks will be material gels (the “inks”) and the 3D printers themselves.
  • The current state of the art focuses on solid objects. It will take some time before we get to something resembling Diamond Age-style finished good manufacturing, but it won’t be all that long. Robotic assembly already happens in factories around the world; as technology advances the 3D print head will generate a range of components and small robotic arms and claws built directly into the device will handle multi-part, multi-stage assembly. And it will happen on your coffee table.
  • In the near term, it will make millions of subcomponent manufacturing jobs unnecessary. There are tons of little plastic and metal parts that people take for granted in finished consumer or industrial goods. The ability for 1st party/1st tier manufacturers to bring more of their supply chains in-house at low cost will be huge. Once it becomes faster, 3D printing will put lots of second and third-tier suppliers out of business.
  • Designers will be able to distribute their products directly to consumers for in-home manufacture. As a matter of fact… they already can.  For those who aren’t interested in the full-blown “do it yourself to the point where you build your own 3D printer” ethos of a project like Fab@Home, a clear leader in this emerging market is MakerBot, which has brought the cost of entry-level consumer hardware down to $1749.



  • Just like home inkjets need words and pictures, 3D printers need content too. An important part of MakerBot’s efforts is Thingiverse, an online community where people publish and share the files for their 3D-printable objects. Having paper printers in lots of homes didn’t mean that everyone needed to become a graphic designer; likewise, having ubiquitous 3D printing will not mean that everyone needs to become an industrial designer. Given the way that people buy music these days, it’s easy enough to see us coming full circle and downloading a file from an online store with the instructions to make a vinyl record.
  • It isn’t even necessary for everyone to personally own a 3D printer. Items are now being printed at mall kiosks, retail shops, and facilities like TechShop. Rather than go to a supply store, professional craftspeople will print components for projects as they need them. The key is that these devices dramatically cut the number of intermediate steps, including changes to form and to location, between raw material and ready-to-use. Here’s an example of that taken to an extreme: there’s a team that has made a solar-powered 3D printer that can create glass objects using only sand and sunlight.

Information infrastructure is becoming more consolidated and accessible in the cloud. Manufacturing infrastructure is becoming more distributed and democratized with technologies like 3D printing. Looking towards a time when anyone in the world will be able to make anything that they want – be it software or hardware – you have to wonder just one thing: what need will your business be meeting?

Ian McCullough is an independent project management and operations consultant for consumer-facing businesses. He has successfully deployed cloud-based solutions at the companies he works with, so he is an active practitioner and builder – not just some random theorist. For more information, you can visit his LinkedIn profile.