Earlier this year, The Economist published a 14-page special report titled “A third industrial revolution”, echoing the first and second industrial revolutions which respectively led to the mechanization of the textile industry in the 18th century, and to the introduction of mass production thanks to the moving assembly line in the 20th century. If a third industrial revolution is on its way, what will it replace mass production with?
The Age of Customization
In today’s world, when one wishes to buy a hammer, he or she simply… goes to the shop and buys a hammer! Generally speaking, this hammer is not customized: it is mass-produced, meaning that hundreds of thousands of identical hammers are sold in other shops.
In broad terms, mass production simply is the process of making the same object over and over again by assembling parts that were previously made over and over again too. The awaited third industrial revolution, however, is thought to have the potential to do just the opposite: objects will be tailor-made.
Nowadays, this idea sounds quite unlikely. Imagine you want a purple hammer, with a handle made of mahogany that is exactly 23.17 cm long and with a steel head that is exactly 8.43 cm wide. Finding a company willing – and able – to make such a hammer for you already is quite a challenge. And if you are lucky enough to find one, the amount of money you will have to pay for such a hammer will quickly dissuade you!
The third industrial revolution, however, could lower these customization costs significantly. How? By performing additive manufacturing. All that is needed is a computer and a printer, but not any kind of printer: a 3D printer!
The Age of Digitization
3D printers were not initially conceived to build objects; they were essentially designed to make one-off prototypes. But as the technology improved, finished goods came to be produced and will soon represent more than half the money spent on 3D printers. Shells for hearing aids, dental crowns, ready-to-wear shoes and cupcakes – yes, cupcakes! – are among the many things that 3D printers already make.
The process of printing an object is more or less similar to that of printing a letter. The biggest difference lies in the fact that 3D printers rely on a software which takes a series of digital slices of the object to be made and then sends these slices’ descriptions to the printer, whose job is to successively add multiple thin layers of material until the object is finally made.
The anticipated impacts of this revolution in the way we make objects are manifold. The industrial work organization chart could be deeply affected, leaving factories almost desert and crowding offices with designers, engineers, marketing staff, and so on; the need for a highly-educated local population could be stronger than ever. And instead of flowing evermore to developing countries, production could come back to the West.
The potential effects of the forecasted third industrial revolution are still hard to assess due to the relative novelty of the digitization and customization of pWill Mass Production Become Obsolete Soonroduction. Is it highly probable, however, that both positive and negative large-scale changes will occur in our way of living. Mass production should not be obsolete in the years to come, but has a serious long-term contender that holds the promise of matching every single consumer’s whims…
About the author:
Alexandre Duval is a blogger for Merlin Assurance. He is also currently completing his master’s degree in political science at the University of Quebec in Montreal.