Manufacturing guy-at-large.

My secret Manufacturing master plan

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Background: My day job is directing Undercurrent's strategy work with General Electric, but on the side I spend my time researching the state of the art in manufacturing - specifically, industrial 3D printing. I've written before about my approach to some of this work, but want to lay out here the way I see it fitting into my career.

As you'll know from my blog (cf. one, two), a primary focus of mine is developing a line of high end metal 3D printed bicycle parts. However, it might not be clear that that's just one step in finding specific applications where 3D printed production parts make commercial sense. In the end, the purpose of my work is to help expedite the transition toward a more fluid, transparent, and efficient mode of product design, manufacturing, and distribution - one which properly accounts for its own externalities, and allows for rapid integration of feedback across and throughout a part's life cycle.

I should be made clear that my long term focus isn't specific to additive. Every manufacturing method has a purpose, and any claim that 3D printing is going to unseat other methods should be examined critically. I want product designers have perfect transparency into how a given process will affect cost and function, and to be able to tune their design such that it's well matched for the resources at their disposal - and the end user's needs. 

I do believe, however, that additive manufacturing offers a unique and historical opportunity. Partly because of the fact that 3D printed parts always begin as 3D models - and partly, to be frank, because of its sex appeal - additive has encouraged a new wave of people to people to work in an industry (manufacturing) that was due for a radical change. And while the effect of their naïveté is often to simply create churn, in the end I believe that manufacturing will benefit greatly from the influx of new ideas and working styles.

In order to harness this opportunity, I'm focused on developing the most compelling possible use case for the technologies at play today. For metal 3D printing to reach industrial maturity, designers need to understand its limitations - and how to best exploit its strengths. So I have begun my research with metal powder bed fusion, which is currently the 3D printing process best suited for industrial use. I'm developing parts which make good use of 3D printing's strengths (lightweight, low production volume, smaller than a breadbox), and an industry which prizes the traits that additive manufacturing is best suited for (has short sales cycles, rewards innovative design, benefits from customization).

Today, developing metal 3D printed parts is an expensive process, and it's difficult to estimate how difficult a project will be. So to begin, an easy place for me to provide value has been to explain (in sometimes painstaking detail) the experience I've had over the past year and a half. Because there's so little public information about the realities of  metal powder bed fusion, writing on that subject has allowed me to boost my profile quickly. 

But more importantly, it has encouraged other people who are working on similar problems to offer collaborations. This has helped me twofold: First, it has in many cases resulted in decreased costs on my end, as the people and companies that I'm collaborating with have given me prototype parts in exchange for me writing long, in-depth descriptions of what they do. But even more significantly, these collaborations have given me unique opportunities to see past the marketing and sales messages and talk directly to the engineers who know the state of metal powder bed fusion best. This has allowed me to advance my own level of knowledge much more quickly than I otherwise could have, and has given me access to people who I can now turn to when I'm stuck.

To be sure, I have a *ton* to learn - and ultimately I'll never know as much as the seasoned professionals who I'm working with now. But between the hands on experience that I'm getting by building bike parts, and the access I now have to the most advanced research organizations in the world, I find myself in an ideal position to identify what aspects of today's manufacturing ecosystem most desperately need fixing - and who the most well positioned players are today. And that, plus the (I hope) sincerity, honesty, and intelligence that I've employed in writing about my own development process, puts me in a position to be a key part of whatever team ends up fixing them. 

So, in short, the master plan is:

  1. Build compelling 3D printed products.
  2. Use the exposure I get from that process to learn as much as possible about the industry.
  3. Use that knowledge to identify the biggest problems today, and find out who's best positioned to fix them.
  4. Form like Voltron with those people, and together make sustaining and powerful changes to the way that the product development life cycle works.

Don't tell anyone.

ps - Hat tip to Elon Musk, whose strategy (and how he communicates it) rocks.
pps - I also explicitly want to bring more advanced manufacturing development to New York City, which I believe is the best place in the world to do serious work.