Future manufacturing will be shaped by the consumer's desire for individually-tailored products that can be created quickly and on the spot, a futurist told an audience of engineers at this week's Medical Design & Manufacturing West Show.
"The future of manufacturing is local," said Thomas Frey, senior futurist for the DaVinci Institute. "It's hyper-individualized. It's hyper-customizable, with built-in electronics connected to the Web."
By 2030, the marketplace will be heavily influenced by the rise of 3D printing, Frey said. He cited the growing ability of manufacturers to create clothing, housing, food, shoes, and even pharmaceuticals using 3D printers. The capabilities for such systems are in the works today, he said, as researchers develop printers that can make products from plastics, ceramics, concrete, metals, and biological structures.
"You'll get your body scanned and a 3D printer will print your clothes," he told the audience. "Some day in the future, if you get tired of your house, you could grind it up and reprint it." He added that the first 3D-printed house is expected to be completed as soon as 2014.
Food producers will make similarly profound changes, Frey said. Today's easily damaged apples will be replaced by "perfect apples" from 3D printers using biological materials. The same will hold true for many other types of food. "Think of the printer that can first print the soup can, and then print the soup that goes inside it," he said.
Virtually all of the those new products will also be endowed with intelligence, Frey said, adding that by 2020, 50 billion "things" are expected to be connected to the so-called "Internet of Things."
The rise of such new manufacturing techniques will also have a dramatic effect on the workforce, Frey explained. Whereas today's 30-year-old worker has typically had 11 jobs during his or her lifetime, 30-year-olds in 2030 will have worked on 200 to 300 "projects." Such projects will be much shorter in duration than today's jobs, and will be set up around industries such as nano-tech, bio-tech, photonics, and gaming. Frey compared that work phenomenon to today's movie industry, where actors, producers, directors, and camera crews move from movie to movie, and then from production company to production company. He described such practices as more "organic" than today's corporate hiring practices.
For employees, the result could be a trend toward so-called "co-working spaces," where "people looking for that next temporary gig" will gather in offices that will provide more social contact than home setups. He compared that to the current trend toward remote employees working at public coffee houses. The co-working spaces, however, would be quieter and better suited to computerized work than today's coffee houses.
Frey added that the inevitable move toward automation needn't concern workers. He said that for every job eliminated by the Internet, 2.6 new jobs will be created.
The bottom line is that manufacturers must be flexible, ready to customize, and prepared to move to market faster. "If your next project is not aligned with the problems, needs, and desires of the future, the future is going to kill it."