The Economist has a great survey this week on the future of manufacturing with some really interesting articles on short-run digital manufacturing, labor arbitrage opportunities (potentially moving manufacturing back from China), and collaborative manufacturing in the age of collaborative consumption.
Overall as with their recent interest 3D printing, these guys seem very bullish on the future of additive manufacturing technologies such as FDM and SLA. One interesting fact mentioned a few times is that the percentage of finished parts coming out of additive machines (where you deposit or solidify a powder/polymer/etc in a sort of 3D inkjet process) is up to 20-28% for final use parts as opposed to prototype use case which have been the main purview of these manufacturing techniques for a couple of decades now. From prosthetic limbs to airplane parts it turns out that increasingly the benefits of the accuracy of a computer model when combined with the precision of a finely controlled 3D printer is finding its way into mainstream products.
Despite the success of the fantastic entrepreneurs at companies like Makerbot, the mainstream use case is still elusive. At HP we used to wonder whether 3D fabrication through additive techniques would follow the inkjet distribution model (one in every home) or the service provider one (which remains one of the few growth areas in conventional ink on paper printing). The arguments for the latter are clear: more expensive machinery amortized over greater demand that can be kept in better shape by trained operators. But then again such was the argument for mainframes and minicomputers before the advent of the PC.
One thing I do wish they'd covered in the survey was the advances in subtractive manufacturing technologies because of digital design and the dropping costs of computation in general. Though modern forms of milling may be less sexy than the Star Trek replicator fantasies induced by the promise of 3D printing, the fine folks at MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms have all but convinced me of the relevance of subtractive techniques especially when it comes to near term hobbyist applications. I'll have more to say about those (and specifically about custom electronics) in posts to come.
The final point I'll mention from the survey is how generally optimistic and "lean forward" the promise of bringing the advantages of computing into the physical world through these new (or recently re-factored) manufacturing techniques is. Compared to the recent "SoLoMo" malaise (brilliantly covered by Alexis Madrigal in the Atlantic this week), it is a breath of fresh air.