In This Issue
The Bridge: 50th Anniversary Issue
January 7, 2021 Volume 50 Issue S
This special issue celebrates the 50th year of publication of the NAE’s flagship quarterly with 50 essays looking forward to the next 50 years of innovation in engineering. How will engineering contribute in areas as diverse as space travel, fashion, lasers, solar energy, peace, vaccine development, and equity? The diverse authors and topics give readers much to think about!

Digital Manufacturing: Breaking the Mold

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Author: Rush LaSelle

To appreciate the future impact of additive manufacturing not only on industry but on economies and their constituents, it is important to have some perspective on the scope of manufacturing, including the impacts and disruption of digital technologies over the past decade.

Economic Scope of Manufacturing

Manufacturing is fundamental to both developing and advanced economies and represents approximately 17 percent of the world’s GDP. For developing nations it provides a pathway for rising incomes and living standards, while for developed nations it is a vital source of innovation and economic competitiveness given its substantial contribution to research and development. Moreover, innovation and advances in large-scale manufacturing have made it possible for the average consumer to afford items such as automobiles, electronics, and other complex devices that otherwise would be out of reach for most people, even in developed nations.

The world economy could more than double in size by 2050 (PWC 2017). This will drive additional production capacity, which will bring with it high-wage jobs, increasingly in high-tech areas, wherever manufacturing is located.

Over this same period, digital manufacturing[1] is -likely to transform various manufacturing sectors and shift longstanding patterns, such as reducing the typical decline of local manufacturing sectors after peak output. A predictable cycle occurs when residents whose living standards and discretionary income increase with the rise of manufacturing jobs begin demanding more from the service sector, effectively diversifying the local economy as it reduces dependency on factory work.

Additive Advantages

Additive manufacturing has begun to prove itself a powerful vehicle to usher digital manufacturing and its related services into today’s supply chains, in turn improving the sustainability of the manufacturing sector as local economies evolve. While the technology has been incubating over 30 years, only in the past 5 years, at the hand of Moore’s law, have the computer processing, networking infrastructure, and data storage industries evolved to the point that additive can deliver on the promise of digital manufacturing. That promise can be characterized in at least three ways.

Stronger Connections among Consumers, Designers, and Products

Additive manufacturing (also called 3D printing) enables a closer connection among con-sumers, -designers, and products. It is one of the first widely accessible digital production technologies permitting designers to focus entirely on the functionality and aesthetics of a product, as compared to designing for manufacturing.

To illustrate the distinction, when designing a part using injection molding, engineers are constrained by the injection molding process, including the development of a steel mold and the way the part is formed and released from the mold. Using additive manufacturing, designers and consumers alike can model a product using a range of software design packages, with free online tools and varying levels of design rules and file processing sophistication. With this new freedom, people can design, iterate, and convert their concepts to physical objects without the deep experience and formal training required for more traditional production technologies such as injection molding or computer numerical control (CNC) metal work.

This dynamic has also ushered in the opportunity for cost-effective customization and personalization. Examples of this transformation can be seen in the dental alignment and in-ear hearing aid markets, driven by the ability to eliminate forms and molds in favor of digital scans and advanced production process flow.

Reduced Costs

In traditional manufacturing it can take millions, and sometimes billions, of dollars to set up a factory to realize large-scale production of a single product type. Because additive manufacturing largely removes the need for custom tooling (e.g., molds), the costs to produce small numbers of parts, including a single part, drop precipitously. Companies and individuals can have prototypes produced more economically and pursue new business models that inject more service dollars into the $13.8 trillion US manufacturing industry.[2]

Additive manufacturing
permits designers to focus
on the functionality and
esthetics of a product,
as compared to designing
for manufacturing.
The promise of digital and additive manufacturing is that much of the product-specific expenditure will give way to management of the production processes and file management, both of which are largely common to an exponentially larger set of items to be produced on a given additive platform. Moreover, the elimination of much of the hard tooling corresponds to less time associated with developing and sourcing the tooling. The net result is not only cost savings but acceleration of time to market.

Redistributed Profits

Profit pooling is expected to shift from factories and highly trained personnel to those who own the designs, production inputs (e.g., scans of patients for dental aligners), processing and quality guidelines, and digital infrastructure/repositories.

Distributed manufacturing will drive discrete goods manufacturers to begin fracturing and regionalizing in a similar fashion to what has been witnessed across the retail industry with companies such as Amazon and -Alibaba. Additive manufacturing is one of the first tools to intentionally disintermediate the supply chain to the point that barriers to entry are reduced to near zero and production systems are rendered as ubiquitous and available as 2D printers.

Challenges: Intellectual Property and Regulation

While additive and digital technologies reduce the friction associated with realizing the production of goods, they create other challenges for corporations and governments. The overarching goal is to more quickly and cost effectively make goods available across the globe, but how this is done in an equitable and safe manner requires careful consideration.

The intellectual property landscape will face numerous challenges as designers’ creations are made more readily available and accessible for production. Given today’s tight connection between design, engineering, and production using traditional manufacturing, owner-ship is assigned throughout the value chain as robust manufacturing service agreements clearly define ownership and payment schedules.

In migrating to an environment where designs, in the form of digital files, can be freely passed to any networked printing device, the ownership and associated monetization for the design owner will drive new structures and business models. For perspective, consider the migration from CDs to digital MP3 files a decade ago and the disruption it created for the music industry.

Another area where government agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration, will need to be diligent is in the application of standards and guidelines for how products enter the market. With the ability for anyone with a 3D printer to make a product, the need to track the source of origin will be critical.

Counterfeiting is not a new or digital issue, but the ability for files to be “ripped” and to have parts more easily produced and sold will be a continuous challenge. To ensure that products do not pose a danger to con-sumers, stringent guidelines need to be established and more information made available about a product’s source, for the benefit and safety of consumers both individual and industrial.


In thinking about how these dynamics will impact manufacturing and economies over the next 50 years, it is clear that digital manufacturing typified by the use of 3D printing will shorten supply chains and ultimately shift value chains and profit pools. Reduced barriers to entry will reward agile operators and benefit consumers by providing tailored products to buyers with reduced lead times.

Manufacturing will be increasingly decoupled from developing nations that offer low-cost labor in exchange for better supply chain responsiveness driven through online retail. With this dynamic, many facets of the manufacturing value chain will begin to assimilate retail businesses and find their place closest to consumption. Along with this freedom will come the ability to better accommodate real-time geopolitical and policy changes by optimizing production and logistics trade-offs.

Finally, the covid-19-related supply chain disruptions showed that additive manufacturing enabled the distribution of designs to not only industrial printers but those in maker labs and even people’s homes, decreasing the time to produce and deliver critical supplies to frontline workers.

Extrapolating from the ways communities responded to the pandemic, the future will reward those who make the best use of highly refined design paired with immediately available production assets. The business model used by companies such as Airbnb and Uber will begin to deliver a better product experience for customers and will drive the types of manufacturing efficiencies heralded as part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.


PWC [PricewaterhouseCoopers]. 2017. The Long View: How Will the Global Economic Order Change by 2050? London.


[1]Digital manufacturing leverages computer processing and networking to integrate systems and processes across the entire production value chain, including design/rendering, engineering, production, quality, and logistics. Additive manufacturing is a production process in which material is added to a form (as compared to subtracted, as in metal cutting technologies). Frequently referred to as 3D printing, the process typically entails a computer-controlled process that creates three-dimensional objects by depositing materials, usually in layers.


[2]  World Bank, Manufacturing, value added (current US$),

About the Author:Rush LaSelle is senior director of digital manufacturing at Jabil.