Distributed Manufacturing will Become Mainstream

By Nicolo Gnecchi, partnerships builder, Wikifactory
Nicolo Gnecchi, a partnerships builder at Wikifactory, talks us through the inbound norm of distributed manufacturing...

As the world struggles to come to terms with the staggering human and economic cost of the COVID-19 pandemic; many countries are also waking up to another sobering reality. Our collective dependence on fragile and unsustainable global supply chains.

Travel bans, lockdowns, embargoes, and entire populations isolating and quarantining: the global emergency has impacted industries across the world. The reliance on cheap manufacturing from Asia has led to critical shortages in car parts, technology, medical gear, equipment, and drugs. Companies in once-booming emerging markets, as in Europe and the US, have had to shut down indefinitely and hundreds of thousands have lost their jobs. More are likely to follow. On top of that the service sector economy has taken a big hit, financial markets wobble on the brink and governments are busy slashing interest rates and injecting liquidity. Our hyper-globalised economy has never looked shakier.

Behind the tanking of financial markets, the crisis is laying bare the fragility of a growth model dependent on oil, built on mass production, as well as cheap labour and just-in-time inventories. Right now the world is battling a public health crisis unseen since the 1918 influenza pandemic and can think of little else. But in the long term, this crisis offers a unique opportunity not only to diagnose what is broken and bolster critical industries but also accelerate more sustainable models of distributed manufacturing into the mainstream.

International crisis response to the pandemic is showing that open-source design, peer-to-peer production, and maker communities world-wide can help mitigate critical shortages in medical supplies and equipment. The spirit of innovation has always found fertile ground in times of necessity. What we need in the world post-corona is not a return to “normality” but bold policies and incentives that build on this innovation and push the way for distributed production networks, circular supply chains and greener economies of both scope and scale.

A citizen-led response

Nowhere has the failure of the global supply chain been more apparent than with shortages of critical medical equipment. As the virus spreads, hospitals around the world are finding themselves not only understaffed and overwhelmed, but urgently in need of respirators, hand sanitiser, gloves, protective masks, and other personal protective equipment (PPE). Countries have used emergency powers to hoard supplies and embargo exports. The surge in demand has led to profiteering and states outbidding each other in escalating price-wars. Never has international cooperation looked so dismal.

In the face of this chaos, we have seen an international mobilisation led by networks of makers, innovators and DIY hackers. Many have jumped to fill the void left by incompetent authorities and panicked markets; collaborating openly to design and manufacture local solutions from open source ventilators, to DIY masks, gowns and other PPE. These citizen-led initiatives have shown another response to this international crisis altogether.

The Open Fab Ventilator project was an initiative started by David Cuartielles and César García from the forum foro.coronavirusmakers.org targeting the urgent demand for medical supplies in Spain. Around the world, various Maker Spaces, FabLabs, hacktivist groups have all mobilised and coordinated their resources, communities and tools to meet the urgent needs of local hospitals, clinics and care homes. They have done better in sharing useful information than much of the hysteria-prone media. Wikifactory's viral response page is another good example of providing the space to collaborate and share projects and designs. The Coronavirus Tech Handbook is a rapidly evolving resource with thousands of expert contributors with similar initiatives coming from Helpful Engineering, Hackster.io, and Copper3D. All are organising and coordinating an international network of volunteer makers to provide real-time rapid responses and urgent medical supplies.

Another example where the civic response has been successful in halting the spread of the virus is in Taiwan. Here it has not just been about 3D printing and DIY masks, but using crowd mapping and consensual information sharing between netizens to deliberate policy measures such as social distancing, contact tracing, and testing. Taiwan was badly affected by the SARS outbreak in 2003 so seems to have learned some valuable lessons. They have demonstrated a uniquely democratic, bottom-up approach of using peer-to-peer networks to respond to a crisis. So far the country has had only 724 confirmed cases and 7 deaths.

The numerous examples of civic leadership and innovation in this crisis is more than just a silver lining on what looks like a bleak horizon. It shows that peer-to-peer production and collaboration can mobilise, inspire and make a difference. Many of these innovations and improvised mitigations will only become more relevant and useful as COVID-19 pummels developing countries with less robust health care systems. It also shows there are alternatives to data sharing and tracing that can be community managed; leading to greater transparency, participation as well as respect for privacy and human rights.

Manufacturing in the age of disruption

The challenge of our time will not only involve information technology that facilitates peer-to-peer networks, open-source collaboration and sharing. It is also evident in what has been called Industry 4.0 or distributed manufacturing.

Distributed manufacturing has been around for some years now. On the one hand, it describes the merging of internet platforms with more adaptive, flexible and digital manufacturing technologies. On the other, it embodies a vision of the future in which everyday goods can be personalised and manufactured on demand within short distances of customers or end-users. Wikifactory is an interesting case study of this new paradigm.

Products cost money and energy to process, transport and store in big warehouses, while data does not. Or at least orders of magnitude less. This model allows companies to “design global and make local” by both leveraging digital manufacturing technologies and engaging directly with customers. Technologies like 3D printing allow for a shift from mass production to individual customisation, personalisation and specification. Also, supply chain management is no longer a matter of lean logistics and cutting costs as Professor Martin Christopher explains well; but how companies can actually deliver value and compete as their own, more flexible, supply chains.

Take the Italian startup Isinnova. The company heard about a shortage in respirator valves in their local hospital in Brescia, northern Italy. In a matter of days, they were able to reverse-engineer and 3D-print a version of the part. Their prototype worked and they were immediately able to supply 100 units. This is a case example of how additive manufacturing not only makes it possible but cost-effective to produce in smaller batches, as well as customise the product to specification.

On a bigger scale, we are seeing rapid adaptation by the automotive and aerospace industry. This relies on complex supply chains made of tens of thousands of parts manufactured and assembled in hundreds of factories across the world. While many car companies have ground to a halt under lockdown rules, some have been able to adapt. Chinese manufacturer Shanghai-GM-Wuling saw its sales plummeting in February and was able to quickly revamp its factories to produce medical face masks. Similarly, despite the bumbling and uncoordinated approach of the UK government, a consortium of aerospace, car and engineering companies have been quickly re-tooling to produce much-needed respirator devices based on widely distributed open-source designs.

Small-scale, local production may not replace or compete with offshore manufacturing any time soon. Industries will continue to rely on economies of scale and outsourcing production where labour is cheap. But if the COVID-19 crisis teaches us anything, companies that weather this storm have already shifted to nonlinear supply chains and distributed systems of production. While invoking the "Blitz Spirit" and emotive wartime efforts may help companies adapt to meet immediate supply shortages, this also tends to centralise key decision making. This often leads to disjointed and contradictory policies directed by bureaucrats rather than a coordinated response managed by experts. The humanitarian sector knows this all too well.

Distributed manufacturing has been disruptive precisely because it relies on information networks that can aggregate and coordinate rather than linear production processes that dictate. More importantly, in the long term, it signals a paradigm shift in the very industrial logic of production. This becomes less about batch manufacturing “end products” than coordinating systems that allow us to access information and experiences.

Think of the future of face masks. These could be smart, custom-fitted for each health worker, use open-source hardware manufactured locally, replace filters in capsules that are recycled on-site after each shift. But they will also include internal OLED displays that can respond to patient information, communicate with other hospital staff, and even regularly check the health worker's own vitals. We are already seeing many open innovations in this direction.

Towards a more circular supply chain

For decades, manufacturers have focused on volume. With mass production and economies of scale moving more units inevitably meant more profit. An industrial global economy based on the premise of increasingly cheap labour and abundant resources, and where environmental concerns can be swept under the carpet, has been a flawed formula for growth.

The wastefulness of this model is not only evident in our landfills and oceans, but in the many products (take consumer electronics) that are made to be replaced with newer versions every year or even designed to fail after a certain amount of cycles. What is called planned obsolescence was well exposed in a 2010 documentary called the Light Bulb Conspiracy. If being quarantined with a battery-dead Kindle doesn't make you question this model, the very existential threat of climate change should.

Rising labour costs in emerging markets, as well as growing ecological awareness, is leading to incremental changes in both consumer choices and the cost-benefit analysis that goes into the sourcing, manufacturing and distribution of products. Many companies are prioritising their product traceability and carbon footprint as well as a Product Life-Extension business model. At the same time, we are seeing a growing acceptance of circular supply chains that factor in the recycling, refurbishing and repair of products.

This is part of a wider trend in distributed manufacturing that shows how circular economic practices not only reduce waste and CO2 emissions, it allows for valuable feedback loops in design and manufacturing. This helps create relationships with end-users who are not just passive consumers but active prosumers. They value participative engagement, cradle to cradle design, and regenerative business models that can be profitable as well as responsible in a warming planet of finite resources.

In a post-COVID world, we need to prioritise and incentivise a circular economic model not only because it is good for mother earth, but because in the long term it will come to define how we manage our collective resources, re-evaluate our waste and byproduct, and create both wellbeing and wealth.

Beyond COVID-19

There is no doubt that the major disruption caused by the COVID-19 crisis will have lasting repercussions for years to come. The negatives are plain to see in the daily headlines and don’t need repeating here. But hopefully, this crisis also serves as a waking call and a realisation that we cannot go back to business as usual.

Distributed manufacturing and decentralised production networks already signal that a powerful paradigm shift is underway in the way we connect, work, produce, and ultimately value the things around us. Harnessing circular economic practices and supply chains will not only prove more efficient, sustainable, and better for the environment: they can lead to innovation and the creation of jobs in the long term. Companies that already embrace aspects of this model will become the vanguard of the next generation industry.

Since the mid-2000’s distributed manufacturing has been popularised by the maker movement and DIY culture. The bottom-up response to this crisis led by makers, hacktivists and innovators shows that civic participation and peer-to-peer production can be a cause for hope and solidarity in a time when international cooperation looks weaker than ever. It also shows us that technology can be both disruptive and democratic, responding to consensual ways of information sharing and aggregating data, designs, and manufacturing; as well as coordinating rapid crisis response. What is clear is that a change is already underway and an opportunity at hand to accelerate the evolution of distributed manufacturing from the fringe to the mainstream.

As this technology advances, it also lowers barriers to entry, commercialisation and learning. With the job losses and rising unemployment that will inevitably follow this crisis, education in digital literacy, building new skills and access to these technologies must be prioritised. On the one hand, the right policy decisions that both understand and embrace distributed manufacturing can help this acceleration in ways that are inclusive, help create new opportunities and new jobs. On the other hand, it is up to us to connect dots between peer-to-peer networks and industry 4.0 and invent a future that's worth the candle.


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