A few years ago I was invited to deliver a presentation on how the cloud will affect the future of manufacturing at the Congress of the Future of Engineering Software (COFES) in Scottsdale, AZ.  Although it seems like it was only yesterday, I’m always struck by how quickly technologies move from relative obscurity to the mainstream.  One of those technologies, which was a significant focus of that presentation, was that of additive manufacturing /3D printing.

3D printing is clearly a much more main-stream topic today than it was only a few short years ago.  Yet, even so, one of the predictions I made at the time was that 3D printing would become an enabler of several opportunities for manufacturers that could change the scope of manufacturing, perhaps as profoundly as Internet technologies have changed the way we all communicate today.

Among the drivers for this prediction included concepts such as the growing demand for customization and personalization of products; but also our ever-increasing need for nearly instant gratification.  When trends like these are combined with the increasing costs and long lead times for high-volume off-shore manufacturing, a new world of possibilities for manufacturing, enabled by a broad network of 3D printing fabricators, begins to come into view.

As manufacturing fabricators increase their adoption of 3D printing, and as 3D printer hardware providers improve their technologies to accommodate higher and higher volumes, opportunities for manufacturers to meet whimsical market changes and their customer’s desires for highly customized, rapidly produced, and almost immediately delivered products will become more possible.

In the same way Amazon positions and pre-stocks regional warehouses as well as on-boards a growing network of fulfillment partners, manufacturers will soon be presented with opportunities to “assemble” much more dynamic and flexible domestic manufacturing networks to support just-in-time, just-in-place, build of “just-right” products to meet the demands of this rapidly evolving market – to a large degree enabled by this 3D printing revolution.

It’s even possible to envision a future in which manufacturing tools themselves can be automatically self-reconfigured in real-time using 3D printed tooling components to support the need to address customized parts as they move their way through the assembly process.  This may even occur within 3rd-party-run, highly automated, nimble “factories,” co-located or very near regional distribution centers.

However, this is not to say that every product in every application is a candidate for an additive manufacturing approach.  Many component parts will continue to be better served by subtractive manufacturing technologies like those in use today.  Yet, it should go without saying that there will be new opportunities that should also play a role in the re-shoring of a fair percentage manufacturing previously lost by many emerged markets – a boon to the economies and job seekers in those markets.

However, as much as 3D printing technologies enable many new opportunities for emerged market manufacturers, there’s a need for an underlying technological ecosystem to support them.  To support an ecosystem of geographically dispersed designers, engineers, planners, logistics experts, procurement personnel, and a collection of manufacturing fabricators and assembly partners who need to collaborate and share needed information requires an equally nimble, yet powerful technology ecosystem.  As I had indicated in the aforementioned presentation a few years ago, I see the cloud playing a significant role in this required ecosystem.

In fact, it was immediately following my presentation that day that I struck up a conversation with Mike Payne, a pioneer in his own right with regard to ushering in transformative CAD technologies as a founder of PTC, SolidWorks and Spaceclaim.   Mike and I discussed his latest venture at the time, Kenesto, which was focused then on enabling engineering and design workflows in new and more flexible ways.  Out of my excitement for the possibilities, I joined Kenesto exactly six months later.

Since that time, Mike, our team, and I have been working to deliver a cloud-based collaborative platform, purpose-built to be an enabler of the next-generation manufacturing ecosystem.  Kenesto’s platform now enables companies and individuals engaged in such projects to plan, organize, collaborate and manage the communication, projects, tasks, workflow processes and information surrounding such projects through a technology set designed for these emerging requirements.

Kenesto is built around a multi-tenant cloud architecture, which supports a variety of differentiating capabilities necessary to enable the next-generation manufacturing ecosystem.  One example of this includes the flexible, yet highly secure ways in which Kenesto supports the ability for individuals working in different companies to work together on projects.  It’s not only the fact that the system is cloud-based and also multi-tenant, but the way in which Kenesto uniquely combines them.

Processes from early planning to procurement to design and engineering to manufacturing contract facilitation become uniquely and very easily connected together to form the basis for a successful ecosystem.  As we engage with the individuals and companies involved in everything from small maker-movement projects to large-scale, highly distributed manufacturing projects, we look forward to being a part of this exciting new world as it evolve around us.