How Microfactories Can Bring Iterative Manufacturing to the Masses

Humans manufacture a mind-numbing amount of stuff each year—ever wonder how we do it?

In the past 100 or more years, it’s been all about economies of scale. This means you should make a lot of a thing because the more you make, the more your fixed expenses get spread out. This reduces the cost of each unit, from light bulbs to iPhones. Here’s the problem. It’s expensive to do a big manufacturing run. So, how do you know what to make in the first place?

Often, it’s an educated guess based on prototypes and limited feedback, but you don’t really know until you try to sell a product—and by then, you’re fully committed, succeed or fail.

Jay Rogers of Local Motors wants to upend common wisdom. Manufacturers should run through tons of potentially good ideas and then test them out to see if people actually want what they’re making before going full scale. And Rogers thinks microfactories are the way to do it.

Local Motors, a company Rogers founded, is a community-driven platform that’s all about designing, prototyping, and manufacturing hardware—real stuff, you can touch or ride in. This is made possible using a microfactory, which can achieve a much smaller scale for production than traditional manufacturers and allows for rapid prototyping and on-the-fly iterative design.

A giant manufacturer like GE, Rogers says, is brilliant at making one of something, or a million of something—but they can’t make 1,000 of something. This is the scale at which microfactories can answer the question, “Should we make this product?” The hope is that more great ideas get the backing they deserve, and fewer ill-advised ideas make it to full-scale production.

“Our microfactory is capable of doing things 5 times faster and with 100 times less capital than everything else in the industry doing these kinds of complex cyber-mechanical devices,” says Rogers. “We have a design and development team; we have a manufacturing or build floor; and we have a shop. We design, we build, and we sell.”

Who decides what designs to pursue or which direction to customize? You do. Crowdsourcing and crowdfunding ideas have fueled Local Motors’ most successful projects, perhaps the best-known of which is a 3D printed a car called Strati. The team printed the first Strati over a course of six days in front of an audience at the 2014 International Manufacturing Technology Show.

Now, they’re planning a commercially available 3D printed car.

The winner of a crowdsourced design contestthe LM3D Swim—will be fully electric, about 75% 3D printed parts (including the chassis), and sell for an estimated $53,000. And of course, if it’s 3D printed—it’ll be customizable (beyond just paint job and accessories). While the car’s general design is the same, the user may customize it so much it may look completely different in the end.

The current plan is to offer presales in the second quarter and potentially retail sales by the end of 2016, assuming the vehicle passes crash testing. (And if you’ve ever wanted to see how a car is 3D printed, check out the video below.)

Local Motors runs three microfactories in the US, plans to open another in Berlin, and hopes to open 100 microfactories globally in the next 10 years. They’re also working with others to spread the idea. First Build—a collaboration between crowdfunders, General Electric, the University of Louisville, and Local Motors—is focused on appliance design, among other things.

Capitalizing on the power of microfactories and the crowd, we may be able increase the speed and scope of innovation in manufacturing. Instead of investing our energy in just a few ideas, maybe we’ll eventually test hundreds or more. And in the process, who knows what genius designs we’ll find?

“My brave Kurzweilian prediction is that we will make the flying cars,” Rogers says. “We will make the transportation teleportation machines that have yet to come about because we allow the dreamers who think about making this stuff happen to have a space…to make it come to life.”

The future of manufacturing is bright—and we may all play our part in it.

This is the first year Singularity University has hosted Exponential Manufacturing. Click here to learn more and register today.

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Andrew J. O'Keefe II
Andrew J. O'Keefe II
Andrew operates as a media producer and archivist. Generating backups of critical cultural data, he has worked across various industries — entertainment, art, and technology — telling emerging stories via recording and distribution.
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