3D printing and automation can now allow a very small manufacturing plant the ability to produce a vast array of finished and in-process goods without the large investment costs that use to come with retooling. If the production output of a large manufacturing facility were to be dispersed across several smaller plants throughout the country (or globe), than a company can save dramatically on shipping and transportation costs as well as reducing emissions).
This model is similar to what already works for large retailers that rely on regional distribution centers to get their goods to consumers. It is successful on an even smaller scale for restaurants like Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks. Both of these chains rely on several smaller regional food production facilities to make some of their pastry products, rather than just 1 large facility. With 3d printing and automation, there is no reason that a toy bought from a local retailer could not have been made in a small regional plant, rather than shipped from the other side of the planet.
The materials and techniques for 3D printing available today is almost unimaginable. Common materials like steel, aluminum, glass, plastics, as well as more advanced titanium alloys, composites and ceramics are all possible now through various readily available 3D printing techniques and machines. It is even possible to print a candy bar! This is not always cost effective to use on individual parts, however it is practical to use for producing molds for parts. This is extremely important (and not fully taken advantage of yet), because most consumer products come from a mold of some kind.
Automation is well observed throughout most manufacturing facilities today, however there are still many steps in the manufacturing process that could benefit from further automation. Rarely will you see a plant that produces any product from raw to finish good through 100% automation. Robotic forklifts, assemblers, welders, etc. can be used in conjunction with smarter building layouts and monitoring systems to accomplish this. There tends to resistance from trade unions whenever this discussion is had, but the question of 'who will maintain these robots?' is usually, incorrectly left out of it.
This next generation manufacturing model would require a fairly drastic evolution of our manufacturing sector:
- It would require closing large plants that have low output efficiency (ie. ridiculously high overhead costs or extremely long lead times) to which the government can provide a tax holiday for sales tax on any asset sales.
- Building several smaller, smarter manufacturing plants
- Training manufacturing workers to maintain and program robots
- It would necessitate a new focus on the government to upgrade and maintain the best infrastructure in the world
All of these steps are huge job creators and value added investments for America that will insure an economic strength unmatched by any other country.