“Distributed Manufacturing” is one of 10 emerging technologies of 2015 highlighted by the World Economic Forum’s Meta-Council on Emerging Technologies.

With the rise of 3D printing has come the rise of a wider trend: distributed manufacturing, in which products are fabricated by the customer themselves or in facilities that are much smaller and more local than traditional factories. We spoke to Jeff Carbeck of Deloitte Consulting about the growth of distributed manufacturing and what it means.

Q: Which technologies make distributed manufacturing possible?

3D printing has the most headlines, but it is only one of the technologies that can transform a digital design into a physical object. There are subtractive as well as additive technologies – CNC tooling, for example, in which a computer-controlled device carves items from a block of material such as metal.

These techniques are not new. CNC tooling has been around since the 1950s, and 3D printing since the 1980s. But they require a lot of computing power – think of the file size of a high-resolution 2D image, then imagine that as just one of many 2D slices of a 3D image. Until relatively recently, computers powerful enough to use a 3D printer were more expensive than the printers themselves. And while the cost of 3D printers has been coming down, it’s the dramatic fall in the cost of computing power that is now making distributed manufacturing cost-effective and feasible.

Q: What are can currently be manufactured in a distributed way?

The first generation of technology is pretty good at making parts that consist of a single material – metal, or some plastics. There are still marginal improvements to be made, but the capability is around 80%. However, the need to stick to one raw material is limiting. You can 3D-print a sneaker, for example, but only if you make the upper from the same material as the sole – say, using some kind of mesh design.

The next generation of technology will make items using combinations of material. Of course, there’ll be physical limitations with compatibility of materials – it would be hard to make something combining, say, a metal and a plastic which have very different melting points. But there are already printers that can print using two or three materials, and the possibilities will grow as the technology becomes more advanced.

Q: What kind of things can we expect to see being manufactured in a distributed way?

In the longer term, it is possible to imagine complex products such as buildings and vehicles being made this way. More immediately, an important use is printing parts and components when it would be costly or time-consuming to get a replacement through the usual supply chain. For instance, the US Navy already uses 3D printing to make surgical tools in inaccessible places.

Customized medical devices are also likely to be an increasingly important market. An example that points the way is called Invisalign: a dentist scans your teeth, models where they should be growing and sends instructions to 3D-print a mould for a device that acts like braces. Beyond medical devices, there are all kinds of products that people could want to customize, from toys to jewellery to electronic devices – and which could profoundly change product design.

Q: What are the implications of putting product design in the hands of the end user?

Think of the products that surround us in our everyday lives – almost all of them have been through a linear process in which a small group of product designers have decided what they will look like. Now think of the natural world, in which the design of living things has been shaped by countless localized experiments, continually adapting and combining ideas. Product development could become more like evolution by natural selection, with billions of people sharing their designs online to be downloaded and made locally.

Another possibility is that product design become more like open-source software, with communities of users pooling expertise to continually improve on designs.

Q: Are there risks in the rise of distributed manufacturing?

It will inevitably be disruptive for many particular industries, not only manufacturers but also distributors and delivery firms, as people start buying fewer finished products and more raw materials. But the environmental benefit of shipping less merchandise around the world is also, of course, an attraction.

There are issues to be solved around quality control and counterfeiting, because when goods aren’t coming from a centralized factory, it’s harder to be confident about what you’re buying. Technological solutions to this problem are being developed – for example, we can use 3D scanning to perform quality control on the size, shape and dimensions of an object, and to check it matches with the design file. Some companies are working on nanoparticles that can be inserted into raw materials in such a way that you can check the provenance of the materials from which an item was made. And it is also possible for digital files to have hidden marks integrated into manufactured objects, like watermarks in banknotes.

Another challenge is to control the illegal proliferation of products such as guns, as it becomes easier to share designs for weapons and make them locally.

Q: How big is distributed manufacturing likely to grow?

There will always be some things it makes more sense to manufacture in the traditional way. Think of the equipment used to move earth and rock in mining operations. Already, about half of the replacement parts for these machines can be made using distributed manufacturing, which is impressive. But there are some very large cast metal pieces, like giant steel blades, that it’s hard to imagine can ever be manufactured outside large factories.

When microwave ovens first became popular, it wasn’t clear if they would replace conventional ovens, hobs, grills and so on. But, as we discovered, there are some things it makes sense to cook in a microwave, and some it doesn’t. It’s likely to be a similar story with distributed manufacturing technologies. Still, we can expect tens of billions of dollars’ worth of manufacturing to shift to a distributed model in the coming few years.

Author: Jeff Carbeck, Specialist Leader, Advanced Materials and Manufacturing, DC Innovations, Deloitte

Image: An exhibitor adjusts the printing head of a Fabmaker 3D printer as he poses for the media at the CeBIT trade fair in Hanover, March 10, 2014. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch