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3D Printing 2.0

3D printing 1There’s a good bet that by now you’ve started to wrap your brain around the, heretofore, almost otherworldly concept called additive manufacturing – commonly referred to in most lay circles as 3D printing.

In the version of that next-generation forging I’d bet is still floating around inside your head, a machine captures a digital image of an object and then adds layer after thin layer of synthetic glop onto itself until, when it’s completed, an entirely new product – and an exact replica of the original – is produced.

3D printing 2Well, if a team of engineers and scientists in Europe has its way, later this year that brand of 3D printing you’ve recently tried to come to grips with will prove to be just one more example of yesterday’s news.  Today, your see, there is an entirely new breed of additive manufacturing being developed in the world, and even in its earliest stages (and even in its roughest form) it is, just maybe, a microcosm of the very direction manufacturing will soon be taking.

Just over a week ago in the Netherlands, the principals at a startup specializing in 3D printing announced their intention to erect an entirely functional pedestrian footbridge across a small canal in the heart of Amsterdam using only two of the most basic and fundamental building blocks of the post-modernist’s imagination; robotics and additive manufacturing.

3D printing 3That’s right; not only will an entire bridge be built using 3D printing, but it will be built without any human interaction whatsoever, either at the construction or forging level.

But that’s only part what is so next-generation, so earth shaking and, ultimately, so newsworthy about this announcement.  Because the bridge will be built using a process called MX3D printing (which is also the name of the company), instead of layering synthetic resin onto itself to form a replica structure, it will be built by layering thin sheets of molten metal which, when hardened, will result in a fully operational and entirely safe metal span across the water.

What’s more, the robot doing the work is being developed to craft objects from any angle, rather than simply along a horizontal plane – which is now the case. As molten metal will flow through the robot’s nozzle, it will quickly set, which will allow a robotic arm to produce straight lines, spirals or any other shape for that matter, out of thin air.

So what’s the lesson for those of us with one foot in this new world and one foot in the old?  Heck, you name it.

If you’re an independent shop or factory owner, or even an executive with a larger manufacturing firm, you’d better see the writing on the wall and plan/budget accordingly.

If you’re a shop worker, or someone just entering the job market, you should read the tea leaves and realize that the next new wave of jobs will be entirely different than the jobs that exist today, and that rather than railing against robots, you might consider talking to your boss about getting trained to monitor, service and maintain them.

And finally, if you’re a designer or engineer, you might consider putting away many of your old design tools and wake up to this next generation of 3D product design, computer modeling and almost limitless possibilities.

Either way, my friends, whether we choose to get on board or not, the world many of us grew up in, and the one we have always known, continues to change at a staggering rate.

And like it or not, the next move is ours.

On the Campaign Trail, What’s in a Word?

rhetoric 8When you think about it, the world can turn on a single word.  Perceptions can change.  Expectations can rise and fall.  And realities can be shaped forever.

Consider; in the recent standoff between police and residents in Baltimore which led to days of unrest, shuttered stores, and a Major League ballgame played in a completely empty stadium, for the first time (maybe ever) those covering an event began questioning (and openly debating) the words they were using to describe it.

Was it rioting?

Was it demonstrating?

Or was it civil disobedience?

rhetoric 3Because, use the first term and the participants become a lawless, feral throng of lawbreakers.

Use the second and they’re seen not unlike a bunch of sign wielding union members demanding higher wages or better working conditions.

But use the third and everything changes.  Suddenly those involved are no longer rabid, uncontrolled and primal.  Nor are they acting merely out of a sense of professional duty.  They’re principled, thoughtful, and resolute, while exercising a right many watching or reading the news hold dear themselves.

That is why, for all we talk about the death of the printed word, the specific words our political leaders, reporters and news anchors use to define current events remain, arguably, the most important factor in determining how those events will be subsequently viewed by the public.

rhetoric 1Why bring this up?  Because, dear readers, once again it’s election season.

Once again the language of propaganda will be in full force and full-scale deployment by ambitious candidates, who will use language not to clarify issues, but cloud them.

And once again presidential hopefuls from Maine to Hawaii will be coming out of the woodwork with juicy words to try to fan the flames of public passion.

And of all those words set to be bandied about, none will be any more newsworthy or suggestive than the most salacious of them all.

rhetoric 5Jobs. The granddaddy of all contemporary stump speech buzzwords.

And no  jobs this election season promise to be any sexier or any more attention-getting than – you guessed it – manufacturing jobs.

But don’t buy it.  As I’ve detailed countless times, a corresponding spike in jobs has not accompanied this manufacturing renaissance we’re enjoying.  Yes, there have been jobs created. But they’re not the type many associate with manufacturing.

rhetoric 6They are not the mindless, tedious and repetitive cog-like functions of your father’s factory days.  To the contrary, in fact.

In today’s manufacturing, the physical act of molding, forging and assembling products is often being performed by precise, task-specific and highly calibrated machines.  That’s, in fact, the main reason for this renaissance.

But the politicians won’t mention that because it doesn’t support their narrative.

rhetoric 4The jobs being created, you see, are not only significantly smaller in number than a generation ago (albeit with far greater factory output), they’re more demanding and require a much greater degree of skill, expertise and training.

These days, in other words, you can’t drop out of high school and just walk into a job servicing precision factory equipment.  And you can’t sit home, unemployed and watching Judge Judy and then suddenly find yourself qualified for one of the exciting (but challenging) next-generation jobs now being created.

rhetoric 2That’s the part politicians won’t talk about.

Mario Cuomo once said we campaign in poetry, but we govern in prose.  My friends, this year’s crop of presidential hopefuls is about to put on its Sunday best and start filling the skies with political poetry about his or her commitment to create jobs – especially manufacturing ones.

But don’t buy it.

Manufacturing jobs can happen; but not because some politician made them happen.  They can only happen when politicians work with manufacturers to create an economic climate in which companies large and small can take root, grow and prosper.

rhetoric 9They can happen when a country trains its workers, not for the industrial jobs they lost decades ago, but for the ones that are being created by seismic changes in the manufacturing processes of today

You want politicians to speak the truth this election?  You want them to spell out exactly where they stand on key issues like the economy, unemployment or our shrinking middle class?  Demand they use the right words.

rhetoric 10Instead of jobs, let them spell out how they’re going to support entrepreneurs and enterprising young business minds to help them spin their dreams into realities.

Instead of jobs, let them explain how they plan to train workers with 20th Century skills to compete in a 21st Century job market.

And instead of jobs, let them detail how they’re going to help companies like mine – relatively small shops with big ideas, but only a handful of people and a finite amount of resources – compete against global competitors who often have the advantage of government price supports, cheap labor and little or no regulation.

Business fraud

It’s presidential election season, my friends.  It’s open season for the hearts and minds of America.  And it’s that time during which words, not actions, will once again go a long way toward determining who will be our next president.

Let’s just try to make sure that, when it comes to those words, the people doing the campaigning are using the right ones.


In U.S. Manufacturing Small is the New Black

small is the new blackI couldn’t help to be struck by the news this past week that General Electric is divesting itself of what, as it turns out, is the seventh largest bank in the country, GE Capital. Apparently, the higher ups at GE have determined it is better to do business with a bank as opposed to actually, you know, being a bank.

But that isn’t what struck me.

small is the new black 3It’s that, according to certain analysts, the buyers who will eventually line up for little pieces of GE Capital may not be the usual suspects (who, of course, would have the ability to come in a gobble up everything in one fell swoop). They may not be, in other words, the J.P. Morgan Chases and Bank of Americas of the world doing the buying, but a number of smaller, more nimble bank groups; along with a number of smaller private equity firms looking to cherry pick strategic, undervalued GE Capital assets for their own portfolios.

Couple that with what many of the same analysts see as a movement in the sector to reduce risk and minimize exposure, and you can see how the more consolidated the banking industry is becoming, the more it is rewarding (and maybe even spawning) smaller, more nimble, more market driven and more privately held institutions.

small is the new black 2It’s not unlike what Herb Kelleher and his lean, mean, fightin’ machine, Southwest Airlines, did to the airline industry a while ago, or what hyper-efficient and more user-friendly video alternatives like Hulu, Netflix and Amazon are doing to the lumbering, status quo-loving and only nominally responsive cable behemoths like Comcast and Time Warner, leaving in their wake an ever-growing trail of so-called consumer “cord cutters.”

I’ve been talking about it for four years now, but what continues to happen to the rest of the industrial world has been a big part of the reason why U.S. manufacturing continues to experience such a remarkable turnaround and such an amazing reversal of fortunes.

small is the new black 4Sure, technology and automation have been key to our sector’s renaissance, as have more realistic worker salaries, smarter logistics and a deeper appreciation for nearness-to-market. But never underestimate the importance of the shift from a relatively few gigantic, sprawling “mother ship” factories that once dotted the landscape to the tens of thousands of smaller, nimbler and far more market-focused ones that have risen from their ashes.

Orange is the new black? Hardly. In U.S. manufacturing (and just maybe U.S. banking), it’s small. It’s efficient. And it’s nimble.