The Rise of Desktop Manufacturing in the Great Recession

In the last post, we talked about the changing nature of markets and marketing in the Great Recession.  This time we’ll focus in on one of the results of these changes:  Desktop Manufacturing.

In the old days, it could cost upwards of $10,000 to $20,000 just to create the custom molds and dies required to produce an item in a factory. Then you had to cover the costs associated with prepping the manufacturing line to produce your item.  As a result, your up-front costs could easily surpass $50,000 before your first item rolled off of the line.  To make the effort worthwhile, you needed to produce a large number of items to spread these fixed costs around.

Today, you can get small runs of custom manufactured items for less than $100.  How?  With two new technologies that can run on your desktop: Laser Cutters and 3D Printers.  Both plug into your computer like a normal printer, and both are available for as little as $1000.

A Laser-Cut Lamp Design
A Laser-Cut Lamp Design

Laser cutters take sheets of materials (plastic, wood, ceramic, metal) and use a plotter-like, motion-controlled laser to cut and/or etch these materials based on a digital design.  3D printers use a similar plotter-like, motion-controlled print head that deposits a small layer of plastic as it moves.  Then, once one layer has been printed, the entire process is repeated at a slightly different elevation.  Layer upon layer, plastic is deposited in a digitally-defined pattern, until a 3D part is complete.

Today, both of these technologies are being used mostly by hobbyist and early adopters, and both are undergoing rapid adoption and enhancement.  One project is even pursuing an open-source, community-based model to expand rapidly world-wide.  It’s called the Reprap, and its main claim to fame is its ability to self-replicate.  In other words, you can use this 3D printer to make the parts required to make another 3D printer.

The Reprap, Self-Replicating 3D Printer

The Reprap
Self-Replicating 3D Printer

To support Desktop Manufacturing, new methods of matching manufacturers, designers and consumers has also arisen.  For example, if you like the lamp above, you can order the complete kit from a desktop manufacturer, or you can buy the digital design from the designer, at a site called Ponoko (also check out Etsy).  This is a win-win-win for all parties involved, and highlights several new employment opportunities:

  • For Manufacturers – If you like working with your hands, and have as little as one thousand dollars to invest, you can get in on the ground floor of this new trend and start your very own desktop manufacturing service.
  • For Designers – If you like designing things, and have a little time to learn some new tools, you can start your very own design business.  Since the result of your efforts is a digital product, it is highly scalable.  Should one of your designs go viral, you could just as easily sell millions of your design as you could sell one.

Bottom line, these innovations are drastically changing the manufacturing landscape, and creating new job opportunities in the process. Next time, we’ll explore a new product that’s available in three versions:  home-made, factory-made, and desktop-made.  As always, comments welcome.  Until next time … is a blog by Jay Fenello, principal and founder of,
an Atlanta-based  firm that helps people tranzition to the new economy.

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