Distributed Mass Production

The usual disclaimers apply: I can’t tell whether this thought is original, the technology isn’t quite there yet, and I’ve only done a partial economic analysis.

In the near future, many people are likely to have 3d printers in their homes. These printers will likely only be used on occasion. The installation of software similar to the SETI@home project could allow these printers to be utilized during downtime for mass production of small products, in exchange for payment to the printer’s owners.

Let’s use a small example to see how this could work.

Pencil sharpeners are typically sold in dollar stores in a package of three, for a dollar. Assuming that the dollar store chain uses centralized purchasing (only some do), the head office likely ordered a large number of them from a generic manufacturer in Asia, had them shipped to a central depot, and then split them up (possibly repackaging them in the process) to their locations in various cities.

The cost per unit is likely small – a few pennies per item. The time from when the item is ordered until it shows up in stores right before the back-to-school rush is likely long – possibly six weeks or more. This means that the stores have to get their timing right, and have to correctly anticipate demand.

In my counter-example, the chain knows that a particular store has a requirement for one thousand pencil sharpeners. They enter this into the software, which farms the work out to ten printers that are close to the store. Each printer owner is paid $10 (i.e. ten cents per unit) for the work, which takes an hour or so (assuming more advanced printers than today’s ones, with the ability to manufacture batches automatically, and work with a variety of materials).

Once the work is done, a signal is automatically sent to a local courier, who runs out to the various addresses, and delivers the batch to the store. Total time is under an hour, and the delivery cost is perhaps $20. Total cost for a thousand units would then be $120.

If my analysis is right, for small, simple items that can be produced this way, the cost is only slightly higher than producing in large quantities offshore, and the flexibility of this approach may make it worthwhile.