Saturday, March 23, 2013

Instant Gratification Culture Demands a New Manufacturing Paradigm

The information technology revolution is creating a culture of instant gratification. People have an urge and expectation to immediately get things they want. Fortunately, meeting this requirement in the digital world is quite straightforward. A hit song, a blockbuster ebook, a viral video, or popular news can be instantly accessed by millions of people at the click of a mouse. The scaling up process needed to meet huge overnight surge in the demand can be accomplished in a matter of hours without any significant cost repercussions.

Consumers are beginning to exhibit a very short attention span as a side effect of this culture. Something that is hot today is not likely to be remembered in few weeks from now. So it makes sense for companies to meet the market demand with an utmost urgency. Making customers wait for your product is simply not a viable option because they might move on to the next “in” thing.

This culture of instant gratification is also carrying over to physical products. People want to be able to purchase a hot new product immediately, but they want to pay a bargain price for it! Unfortunately, scaling up production in the physical world is a lot different from making digital copies. So the instant gratification culture poses new challenges for manufacturers. In the last few years, several companies had difficulties in meeting sudden surges in demand. Notable examples include Apple iPhone, Toyota Prius, and Nintendo Wii.

When a new product is launched, it is often difficult to accurately estimate its demand. So production typically begins at low volumes and production capacity is gradually added to meet the growing demand. Unfortunately, this model does not work well in situations when there is a sharp increase in the demand overnight. The culture of instant gratification demands a manufacturing system with the following characteristics:
  • ability to dramatically increase production volume on a very short notice due to a sharp increase in demand,
  • short production run spans (e.g., a few months) to quickly phase out products as customers move on to the next best-seller,
  • and low production costs to ensure affordability.
We refer to this type of manufacturing as burst production, i.e., very high volume production over a short period of time.

So far, the mass production has been the dominant paradigm for producing affordable products. It is based on the economy of scale. It usually takes many months to setup a production line for the mass production. Processes are carefully optimized on the production line to reduce the cycle time and reduce production cost. It is not unusual for a production run to continue for years with minor tweaks in the product and the process. Long production runs enable amortization of the initial setup costs. This paradigm has been successfully used to manufacture affordable products and raise the standards of living worldwide.

The characteristics described above clearly show that the burst production manufacturing is a fundamentally different paradigm from the mass production manufacturing. One simply cannot take six months to setup a production line. Currently the only viable method for supporting a burst production operation is to deploy a vast amount of manual labor over a short period of time, exploiting the flexibility of the human labor to reduce the changeover time. Currently China seems to be the only place in the world where a vast amount of labor can be rapidly mobilized at a relatively low wage rate. As we try to bring manufacturing jobs back to the US, we will also need to develop a new manufacturing paradigm to support the burst production. This new paradigm will need to be supported by a number of new technological advances.

The rapid scale up requires quick access to additional equipment. Ordering the new equipment and bringing it on-line is simply not feasible because of time constraints. There are two potential solutions on the horizon. The first solution involves customers being able to 3-D print products at their homes or shops that offer 3-D printing services (e.g., Kinkos for 3-D printing). The second scenario involves companies buying additional manufacturing services from the third party manufacturing service providers. In both of these scenarios, companies will just send digital product models to customers or service providers. Realizing this vision in practice will require dramatic improvements in digital fabrication and new standards for exchanging digital product models. Ensuring manufacturing quality in the above scenarios will be a challenge. So we will need new low-cost high-throughput inspection systems to ensure that products can be made as per specifications in the digital models.

Most high-rate production processes currently use custom tooling (e.g., molds, dies). Ordering and getting these tools often takes significant time. So we will need to either develop high-rate production processes that do not require tooling, or come up with methods to quickly produce custom tools. Several processes such as 3-D printing and water-jet cutting exist that do not require part-specific tooling. However, 3-D printing is currently quite slow and water-jet cutting is mainly used for making parts with 2-D shapes. So new high-rate processes will be needed that can produce 3-D parts without requiring part specific tooling. 3-D printing is already being used to rapidly produce custom tools (e.g., direct metal laser sintering process by EOS). However, currently material options are limited. So we will need to improve 3-D printing to rapidly realize custom tools with the desired material properties.

Most manufacturing processes require complex setup and calibration processes that consume significant amount of time. Robots can play a significant role in speeding up the setup processes. Many new capabilities have been added to robot manipulators over the last few years (e.g., Barrett Arm and Hand). However, significant advances will be needed in robot manipulators to match human dexterity, flexibility, and speed. Better user interfaces and diagnostic functions can also reduce the time needed to setup machines. Many processes require manual recalibration to ensure product quality. Low-cost sensor networks are enabling the possibility of creating machines that can calibrate themselves.

Most modern factories use programmable machines. Programming machines and robots often takes significant effort and expertise. We need to dramatically reduce the time needed to program machines and robots. Programming by demonstration appears to a very promising method for reducing the programing time. Baxter, a new robot from Rethink robotics is a good example of the progress being made on this front. We will need to make significant additional progress in the programming by demonstration field to ensure that this approach is applicable to a broad class of manufacturing, assembly, and material handling processes.

Efficient logistics is an integral part of high throughput manufacturing operations. We will need logistics technology that can be quickly reconfigured and scaled up or down based on the demand. Kiva system has developed technology to provide flexible logistics support for warehouses. This technology appears to be easy to deploy and configure. We need technology with similar capabilities for manufacturing shop floors. Manufacturing shop floors tend to be much more complex than warehouses. Significant new developments will be needed in the logistics technology to support burst production.

Many manufacturing challenges can be eliminated by carefully designing products. We will need to develop the design for burst production methodology to ensure that the sudden dramatic increase in demands can be easily handled. This will require carefully selecting processes and materials to ensure that they have low lead times. Using a large number of standard and common components would be a step in the right direction. Some lessons from the design for mass customization methodology will be applicable to this area and will need to be carefully adapted to meet these new challenges.

Burst production paradigm goes well beyond the mass marketed products. For example, vaccine manufacturing can also benefit from this paradigm. A disease outbreak may generate a large demand for a vaccine that needs to produced and distributed rapidly.

The digital world has created a new breed of customers with an expectation of instant demand fulfillment. The manufacturing world has to come up with a solution to meet this expectation.


  1. Thanks for an interesting article. I want to add couple of points:
    1) From company's perspective, should they encourage this new breed of customers and start investing heavily in satiating their demands? Is it good for the long term growth of the company?

    Due to high demand and competition, companies now-a-days tend to launch their products prematurely without rigorous testing. Hence, the companies are putting themselves in the risk of damaging their goodwill as well as vulnerable to legal lawsuits.

    2) Companies now-a-days seem to compromise longevity as a criteria in designing their products. The reason is obvious. They want the customers to come back and buy their new products. This model may work very well for this new set of customers you mentioned or for the luxury products that are designed for rich customers.

    However, products like smartphones, laptops can play a significant role in improving quality of life in many developing countries. The success of a company depends on how they are penetrating new markets. Longevity is an important product criterion in alluring those customers. More than 80% of world population lives in developing countries. Ignoring this huge market may not be good for American companies and American manufacturing in the long run.

    3) This culture of burst production may pose a potential risk to the environment in future. Customers tend to dump the old products to embrace the new ones although the old ones are working just fine. That means there will be a recyclability problem. Compact products with large number of electronics are very difficult to recycle.

    4) Making a production line that can be highly flexible will be good for future manufacturing. A production line where high skilled human workers and robots can collaborate and switch their tasks will be highly flexible. Companies can allocate their resources efficiently on a flexible production line.

  2. One of the biggest issue the industry faces is being able to do short production runs. Large volume production (10,000+ Expected annual usage) are addressed by processes such as injection molding which present wide material choices. Prototyping runs are addressed by 3D printing (and in most cases conventional machining) etc. However the challenge remains in finding a suitable process for medium run production (100-1000 EAU). Mold tool "recycling" seems to be a great way of doing this. But most companies find setting up the CAD/IT systems to manage this extremely challenging.

  3. I enjoyed reading this article very much.

    A variety of interesting methods--3D printing, setup minimization, programming by demonstration, self-calibration systems--to replicate burst production in the manufacturing sector are mentioned.

    Some techniques I would like to add to the list are human-robot collaboration (HRC), augmented reality based systems, and automated multimodal instruction presentation systems that eliminate human errors during assembly on the shop floor.

    Articles like these engage us into brainstorming "out of the box" ideas in order to solve strategic problems facing our economy!!

  4. The shift to overseas manufacturing has disproportionately impacted the smaller companies. The bigger companies have the resources to shift manufacturing anywhere in the world that makes sense to them.

    The smaller manufacturing companies have been decimated, and very few new manufacturing start ups are happening. This is bad for the economy as fewer jobs are available. The next generation of big manufacturing companies will not be US based as it is the small companies that grow to become larger. Besides direct impact on manufacturing jobs, a large number of jobs in design and intellectual property are lost as well. Real world design does not happen in isolation but needs to be grounded in manufacturing for the consumer.

    Access to cheap manufacturing is one part of the puzzle. Another part may be access to knowledge and access to cheap tests to ensure that the manufactured product is reliable and of good quality.

    There is a knowledge component of the manufacturing and testing process that machines do not capture, and this can be a critical advantage if properly implemented.

  5. Kudos for such a nice and pertinent article!

    I am completely agree that role of 3d printing, especially the multi-material printers, will be crucial in tackling challenges thrown by burst manufacturing paradigm. The cost of such 3d printers are going to go down in future and the number of "simultaneous" materials available for layer wise deposition is going to go up. Given this eventuality, what is needed is an integrated design and multi-material 3D printable manufacturing paradigm that considers designing products in light of fabricating them in multi-material 3d printers. There is no to very little research in this direction...

  6. Great post. Very informative. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Your thoughts on relating the instant gratification culture to burst production is very interesting. On a similar note, I would compare it to ‘manufacturing readiness’, in the same sense as to catering to immediate requirements. The realization of innovative technologies is crucial to satisfy the instant gratification culture. 3D printing, distributed digital manufacturing, agile robots, etc., are favorable technologies to help realize the vision of burst manufacturing. However, there are still hurdles that need to be overcome to help realize the full potential of such promising technologies. Catering to the desired material properties, managing an efficient production information system, modular designs, standards, etc., are some of the challenges we face to ‘design for burst production’.