the next industrial revolution


It is rare I make predictions (I am not that smart and my crystal ball has failed me too many times) but here I go.

I do believe the next industrial revolution is upon us.


And I even have a name for it.


It is “Mass Customization.”



How can it be “mass” and “customized? (rhetorical question: lots of explanation to follow). Suffice it to say this is all about technological innovation (which inevitably all industrial revolutions are about).




Before I get into the nitty gritty about this contradictory sounding idea I want to spend a minute on the ‘non-technology’ side of the revolution (this is my personal rant lead in to the technology idea).




It would be easy to say this is a case of how new manufacturing technology will change the world and create the next revolution. But let me begin the hard way.

This is about people.


Every achievement.


Every innovation.


Every breakthrough.


Every industrial revolution.


Everything is only possible because it is humanly possible through someone’s imagination.  In fact this next industrial revolution is not based on some technological “need” (or efficiency need) but rather it will be an embodiment of meeting consumer needs through human imagination (coming to life in a technology solution).


I say all this so that we don’t lose sight when I begin talking about this new industrial revolution and the relevant technology and amazing future manufacturing possibilities that we don’t lose sight that ideas are built from human imagination and achieving what is possible.



That said (rant over).


Let’s talk about this so-called next Industrial Revolution. That means we are talking about this idea of mass customization.


While seemingly contradictory this is all about a production process that combines the elements of mass production with elements of being able to tailor specific products … to the utmost level of customization.


Think about this.


This industrial revolution will mean products are adapted to such an individual level that no two items are the same.




To be clear, this is NOT about “information customization” (i.e., the mass produced is the same but each of the ‘mass’ can be cosmetically  customized).

This is not about jeans or whatever item that can be cosmetically created to match an individual’s ‘want.’

Nor is this about anything that is simply personalized.

This new industrial revolution will be about true customization.

Each output being unique.


If that is so then how the hell can it be mass produced?

This is where imagination and technology meet.

It begins with the internet (of course).

The internet has greatly increased the possibilities for mass customization. And not because it will customize anything itself but it enables a completely unique distribution access model. In other words I no longer need a store front to get the input I need to customize a match to a specific customer need.

But this is not just about the internet.


Because this is a real and new manufacturing technology only enhanced by the internet not dependent upon the internet.


This technology takes customization to a new level practically eliminating any “mis-communication” and insuring that desired demand matches delivered output.


The industrial revolution we know and love (the one in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s) was all about mass production economies of scale. And it changed our world by making things more accessible (economically and accesswise) then was possible up to that point.


The sacrifice?

True customization.  Sure. You could choose colors and specific features and stuff like that.  But the basic widget was the basic widget. Customization (in a mass produced product) was all about cosmetics.


The new industrial revolution? (big drum roll)


3D printing.





Don’t think about your printer in the office.  This idea is a manufacturing process called 3D printing.

Three-dimensional printing makes it as cheap to create single items as it does to produce thousands.

Economies of scale as we currently define it are irrelevant when you discuss 3D printing.



Here is how 3D printing works:

–        First you call up a blueprint on your computer screen and tinker with its shape and color where necessary.


–        Then you press print.


–        A machine nearby whirrs into life and builds up the object gradually, either by depositing material from a nozzle, or by selectively solidifying a thin layer of plastic or metal dust using tiny drops of glue or a tightly focused beam. Products are thus built up by progressively adding material, one layer at a time: hence the technology’s other name, additive manufacturing. Eventually the object in question (The Economist actually used a violin as an example) is created.


(whew. Simple huh?)



A 3D printer works by taking a 3D computer file and using and making a series of cross-sectional slices. Each slice is then printed one on top of the other to create the 3D object (it is difficult to wrap your head around this kind of production). Simplistically 3D printing is all about additive production, in other words, not building something piece by piece but rather by gradual build up. Therefore, because 3D printers don’t need to carve material from preexisting blocks (as in sculpture), the process allows for as elaborate and visually complex shape as you desire. All created in a matter of hours with no manual labor.


The size of these shapes is only limited by the size of the printer making them.


Yeah.  Think about that last sentence.


The beauty of the technology is that it does not need to happen in a factory.


Small items can be made by a machine like a desktop printer, in an office, a shop or even a home. Sure. Bigger items like bicycle frames, panels for cars, aircraft parts (examples of things that can currently be built using 3D printing) need a larger machine and a bit more space – but not an entire factory space.


Today’s constraints to 3D printing?



The process is possible only with certain materials (plastics, resins and metals) and with a precision of around a tenth of a millimeter.





This additive approach to manufacturing has several big advantages over the conventional one.


It cuts costs by getting rid of production lines.


It reduces waste enormously (requiring as little as one-tenth of the amount of material).


It allows the creation of parts in shapes that conventional techniques cannot achieve, resulting in new, much more efficient designs in aircraft wings or heat exchangers, for example.


It enables the production of a single item quickly and cheaply—and then another one after the design has been refined.


Up until now 3D printers have been used primarily for prototyping (aerospace, medical, packaging, automotive) but has been used for jewelry, footwear, industrial design, architecture, engineering and construction and dental industries.

To date, in most cases, once a design was finalized it shifted into conventional mass production methodology(parts are manufactured and assembled in production lines).


3D printing has now improved to the point that it is starting to be used to produce the finished items themselves.

It is already competitive with plastic injection-molding for runs of around 1,000 items.

And because each item is created individually, rather than from a single mold, each can be made slightly differently at almost no extra cost. Mass production could, in short, give way to mass customization for all kinds of products … heck … any manufactured product (use your imagination … appliances, recreational items, home goods, etc.).

Beyond the consumer aspect … think about this disruptive manufacturing idea from an innovations opportunity perspective.

By reducing the barriers to entry for manufacturing, 3D printing should also promote innovation. If you can design a shape on a computer, you can turn it into an object. You can print a dozen, see if there is a market for them, and print whatever amount more if there is a market at the same time modifying the design using feedback from early users.

This should energize inventors and start-ups because building out new products will become less risky and expensive (by the way … that thought translates into an exciting innovation path as the barrier to manufacturing during product development is eliminated – or reduced significantly). Think about this.

That random idea you have in your head that you are struggling to find someone to capitalize and produce can be manufactured on your own and sold on your own.


This is such a profound technological change it could turn the economics of manufacturing upside down. Some believe 3D printing will decentralize manufacturing business completely and  reverse the urbanization that accompanies industrialization (I don’t believe that).

I do believe it will change the way manufacturing will be done in the future.

I do believe it will have a ripple effect and create a strong “cottage production industry.”

I do believe it will create some societal ripple effect (allowing stronger ruralization – I made that word up – of America).


I do believe that while 3D printing technology is only in its product life infancy that it already shows the same disruptive qualities as the original printing press.


As one writer said: “Just as moveable type spread across Europe and democratized knowledge the proliferation of 3D printers eventually promises to democratize creation.” Think about how far this can go.

Developing your own product and designing it and ordering it from the corner cafe on your cellphone.


There will always be a place for economies of scale on some things and some mass production. 3D printing will just create a new aspect to mass production.

(Albeit a big aspect – in my mind).

3D printing can create a manufacturing world in which consumers can design and manufacture their own products.

Look. I know it is impossible to predict the future. And it is impossible to foresee the long-term impact of 3D printing.

But the technology is here. 3D printing is spreading fast as the technology improves and costs fall. A basic 3D printer now costs less than a laser printer did in 1985.

Future innovations are coming.

One last thought.

Why do I feel so strongly about this 3D technology being successful?

It meets a consumer desire.  A want. In fact I could argue … a need. A need from the aspect of self-identity. A want? “I like to have it my way.”  It’s as simple as that. Whenever affordable technology can meet an existent consumer desire (and a desire that many people stifle due to either economic constraints or possibility constraints) that technology has an increased likelihood, an exponentially increased likelihood, of success.

Get ready.

Hold on (‘it may be a bumpy ride and you may be tempted to hold your hands up’ – Charlie Sheen reference).

3D printing is likely to disrupt every manufacturing segment it touches.

I believe 3D printing will be at the core of the next industrial revolution.

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Written by Bruce