DEATH OF THE ASSEMBLY LINE

INDUSTRY & INNOVATION | FOCUS: ON-DEMAND MANUFACTURING

On-demand manufacturing is becoming a more serious enterprise as part of Industry 4.0, giving small businesses with big ideas a chance.

Laborers work at a garment assembly line of Thanh Cong textile, garment, investment and trading company in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam July 9, 2019. REUTERS/Yen Duong


The reality of our world today is largely shaped by the modern manufacturing process, in which goods are put together using interchangeable parts on an assembly line, tended to by robots or humans.

Introduced by Henry Ford and others around the turn of the 20th century, the assembly line model of mass production has become synonymous with the manufacturing industry and a part of our collective consciousness, in a way that the image of a moving conveyor belt springs to mind whenever we think of factories.

With the exception of items built in artisanal workshops, almost every single item that you can see around yourself has been mass produced on an assembly line somewhere (read in Asia).

The throughput of assembly lines is then transported to industrial storage facilities, from where the goods are gradually shipped to target markets in response to demand.

This, however, is not a flawless model, and it may be about to change.

Despite benefits such as the “economies of scale" concept, mass production is impossible without huge investment and complicated financing arrangements.

The huge cost of entry keeps the smaller players away, for example those who have an idea or a product to offer but cannot secure the financing.

In recent years, and as a result of advancements in information technology, 3D printing, laser cutting, and packaging, an alternative model of manufacturing has been proposed. In so-called on-demand manufacturing, goods are assembled upon receiving an order from a customer, thus eliminating the need for running an assembly line or a storage facility.

By lowering the cost of entry, on-demand manufacturing allows companies with a small customer base to stay in the business as long as they have big ideas.

In a sense, on-demand manufacturing will have the same impact in the industry sector that social media and video sharing platforms had in the show business by allowing independent content producers without particularly deep pockets to try their hand at broadcasting and even turn professional.

The emerging technology of 3D printing is one of the main drivers of on-demand manufacturing. Though some have dismissed 3D printing over the last decade as nothing more than a hobby pursued by shed-dwelling, inventor-type individuals, the technology is now on the verge of becoming a game changer.

In October, 2019, the journal Science reported that a group of researchers at Northwestern University have successfully developed what can be called the next generation of 3D printers: a prototype printer which can accurately and quickly manufacture an object the size of a human.

It is expected that high-area rapid printing (HARP) will be put to use in on-demand manufacturing—unlike earlier systems which, despite their significance as a concept, had limited practical use.

"If we could print fast without limitations on materials and size, we could revolutionize manufacturing. HARP is poised to do that," says the Northwestern University's Professor Chad Mirkin, who was at the helm of the project.

Although on-demand manufacturing will not replace traditional assembly lines and warehouses anytime soon, it will pave the way for a wave of creative businesses ranging from custom-made T-shirts, keepsakes, or decorative items to a more serious application of the technology in medicine.

Before long, however, on-demand manufacturing systems such as industrial 3D printers may turn into a wizard's wand capable of conjuring up exactly what the customer has ordered.

On a more serious note, however, the expansion of on-demand manufacturing will decrease the costs of storage and the risk of investment, while adding to the agility of markets by bridging the gap between supply and demand.