He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot will be victorious.
– Sun Tzu (Art of War)
In my vision of the future, the world of manufacturing is optimized for geography rather than labor cost. In addition to in-home systems, there will also be a network of local manufacturing facilities (think Kinkos) with high end machines and trained staff. Manufacturing is one of the world’s largest industries and this shift will be seismic, disrupting traditional supply chains and opening up new business opportunities.
The question for the entrepreneurs is what part of the industry to be in and which will take the lionshare of the profits. It’s a complex question which I’m still working out in my own head. Here are some of the different models and my thoughts on each:
- Equipment manufacturers – How do the patent portfolios of the established players inhibit the market for new entrants? Are there new technologies that emerge that surpass the capabilities of patented technologies?
- Raw material suppliers – How will demand for new raw materials shift the market and distribution for commodities. Will it create new commodities?
- Equipment repair services – Service contracts for independent manufacturing facilities and home systems. This would likely look a lot like the classic service contracts that GE Aviation and Energy sell as add-ons to their systems. GE Energy and Aviation built their businesses by selling the machines at cost and profiting on long-term service contracts and financing deals. Will today’s equipment manufacturers monopolize this market or will there be space for 3rd parties to provide services?
- Equipment financiers – Will the current manufacturers offer in-house financing or be content letting a 3rd party lender (or many lenders) into the space. Personally I think they’ll create preferential partners in order to remain focused on their core competency in a fast moving space.
- Outsourced manufacturers (distributed versions of Foxconn) – Margins are razor thin for contract manufacturers already, will that change in the 3D printed era? If this is a game of sheer volume and efficiency you’ll need to get into the game before an Amazon (Shapeways?) monopolizes it and their efficiencies of scale are insurmountable.
- Real estate holdings – Will there be a resurgence in prices for industrial zoned property?
- Workflow software – Software packages that run the manufacturing facilities workflow that is optimized for large runs of unique products going to unique places.
- Glue – There will be a software layer that sits between product companies and makers and the facilities that produce their items. There is no use in a digital supply chain if the communication process is still manual!
With the market in its infancy and growing 12x over the next decade, it’s the right time to entrepreneur’s to be thinking about these different models. Some of these businesses aren’t executable until the market is more developed, so the real question is how do you build something now that is profitable and be in the right place to profit as the market evolves. Feel free to reach out to me if you have some thoughts or want to talk about these ideas.