Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Is modern industry heading back toward a distributed model?

There is a trend I have noticed over the past ten years or so that appears to be gaining momentum. Started with JIT (just in time) manufacturing and sales optimization, continued with the enhanced efficiency of shipping and material transport methods, accelerated with the Internet and the newly distributed nature of information resources, and aided by the rise of rapid manufacturing and prototyping technologies, this evolution is continuing. It really seems to me that in some ways the industrial revolution is beginning to come full circle - we appear to be moving away from centralized generation (goods, energy, etc) epitomized by large factories and power plants back to a more distributed model.

One important reason this change appears to be happening is that the technological basis for these activities is continuing to evolve. Solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, and other alternative energy generation methods combined with the decreased price, size, and increased functionality of various industrial equipment (mostly due to the evolution of CAD and CNC machining and advances in materials) allow very small scale manufacturing and power generation to work sufficiently well and cheaply enough on small unit manufacturing to compete with the economies of scale enjoyed by more traditional methods. A significant advantage is that general purpose tooling can be modified from unit to unit without the retooling costs associated with traditional manufacturing line methods.

So everytime i see prices decrease for rapid prototyping and CNC machines and the capabilities improve, or see cheaper and more efficient small scale power generation methods reach the marketplace, it really brings home the way the industrial landscape is changing. Decentralized manufacturing and power generation is starting to look like the next stage of the industrial revolution ...

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