Design and innovation in manufacturing in Australia

I don’t believe the threat to Australian manufacturing will come from China in 10 years time; I believe it will come from FujiXerox, Brother, Canon et al.

As we worked through my Innovation workshop at UX Australia last week, I came to the realisation that my twin daughters – they’ll be three in November – may never have to go through the mundane task to purchase crockery.

3D printers are already capable of printing plates, cups, mugs, tumblers of all shapes and sizes. More and more advanced applications of the technology make the headlines each week, and the complexity of the printed objects grows accordingly. The current issues relate to the cost of the technology; the ability of an individual to lay hands on a unit for their own use; the availability of the ‘ink’; and the availability of the patterns to be printed.

If the history of technology offers any kind of model, then all of these issues will be dealt with; and perhaps very quickly. We have 15 years before my girls will be moving out of home (at least), and the commercial availability of this technology in a home context is easily feasible.

Look at the development of the personal computer as a model. An IBM exec famously said that no one would ever want to own a computer for themselves. He thought maybe a handful of computers would be sufficient. Instead, personal computers took over mainframes, and what once filled a room can now – a mere 40 years later – fit into your pocket.

So, let’s take for granted that my daughters will own their own 3D printers. Rather than buying, say, paper plates for a party, they might simply print off a dozen or so (and recycle them afterwards). Expecting a few guests for coffee? Print off a few extra coffee mugs.

They may never need to visit a store to buy knives and forks, for example. You could easily see Ikea dominating this space with printable furniture. From the store you simply purchase the design; print the component pieces at home; and assemble as usual.

You could replace a damaged panel on your car? Perhaps. How about a new bicycle frame? Or a new handle for your cupboard? What about a bathtub or basin for that renovation? As I look around the studio I can see a plethora or objects that could quite readily be printed instead of made.

What would the availability of such objects do to our sense of quality, and the importance we place on craftsmanship? As the world shifts to one in which objects are ‘printed’ instead of manufactured, our expectations will radically change for when we expect to receive objects. We’re also likely to shift towards a model of – at least for some classes of object – a single-use mentality.

Will the dishwasher and the ritual of washing dishes disappear? Will that become a quaint anachronism? Something dear old Papa does because he grew up in a different Age?

Where will value reside in such a world? How will you and your organization contribute value?

For Australia’s manufacturing industry, already significantly challenged by Chinese manufacturers, the widespread use of 3D printing technology may seem to offer the potential of a ‘final nail’. However, it can also be seen as a leveller. Chinese manufacturing has some significant advantages over local manufacturing in terms of scale – and the economies of scale that flow – and access to a cheap labour force. 3D printing technologies – when widely available domestically – eliminate this scale advantage.

What remains is an ability to innovate in the design of products (and services) in ways that creatively use the technology.

In a recent report from the Prime Minister’s Manufacturing Taskforce, the non-Government Members wrote: “Design should be seen as a ubiquitous capability for innovation” and something to be actively encouraged. Australia has a world-class capability in this space, but it is not widely in use, and the focus for such design has been on efficiency (as a way to counter Chinese economies of scale).

This is changing and we can already see the emergence of a strong strategic design capability, acknowledged as a world-class community of practitioners. In partnership with Australia’s manufacturers, we can apply this capability to the design of products and services which lead the world.

My daughters already inhabit a world that is, in many ways, unfamiliar to me and this will increasingly be the case. And I am optimistic that their world will be one in which Australia’s design capability is exported to the world as a major economic contributor, and one which underpins a strong domestic industry.

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