Jay Rogers says that while assembling his fledgling company’s first 3D-printed car, his team discovered that the fenders didn’t fit.

“The fenders didn’t fit for all the reasons that fenders don’t fit,” said Rogers, president of a firm called Local Motors.

But rather than wring his hands and agonize over the cost of retooling, he had his designer sit down and swap a few parameters on the digital model. An hour later, he had fenders that fit.

“That was a huge learning event,” said Rogers, a speaker at AEM’s 2014 Annual Conference. “We found we could do what we set out to do – it was amazing. It was freedom from 100 years of manufacturing history.”

The Digitization of Manufacturing

So is 3D printing the next industrial revolution?

“I don’t think so,” Rogers said. “There are many tools in a manufacturer’s tool box, and this is just one of them.”

However, what 3D printing has done is make manufacturers think more about the digitization of manufacturing, he said.

“We build very large, complex structures made up of puzzle pieces,” he said. “If we could make things more unitary and easier to repair, it would change the way we bring them to market in terms of speed and adaptability.”

The Tyranny of Ideas

Where will 3D printing reside in the manufacturing process?

It could be downstream, Rogers said, with manufacturers simply providing digital files and service, or it could be upstream.

“It depends on how the industry develops,” he said.

“But what we can be sure of is the ‘tyranny of ideas,’” he said. “If you have the best idea, the machines are making it easier and easier to translate that idea. They’re unlocking the potential for massive disruption.”

Four More Lessons Learned

Here are four more lessons Rogers said he learned from a 3D-printed car:

  • Technology is more of a process than it is just one widget.
  • Machines are getting smarter, so we need to know how to retrain our workers and get them to do things at the cutting edge of what’s next.
  • Designers and marketers will turn out to be really, really important to our business because they tell the story around the things that we make.
  • Sometimes the changes in the way we go to market are beset upon us, and they don’t let us choose the time and place where we wish to evolve.