After Fab Labs, here come the micro-factories! Where Fab Labs—local digital fabrication centers—aim to spark and fire-up invention and entrepreneurship, micro-factories—small-scale manufacturing units—are established by start-ups or large companies to localize production and/or simplify their supply chain.
Across the globe, micro-factories equipped with digital technology, such as 3D printing, are being tested as a way to reduce costs, waste and time to market. In the fashion industry, they are one of the paths toward product personalization and on-demand manufacturing.
Small-scale manufacturing is still more expensive per item than traditional mass manufacturing. However, this is often balanced out by significantly reduced transportation costs and delivery times. Add to this the economic advantages of reduced inventory and overhead, and a markedly lower environmental impact.
What do businesses expect from micro-factories?
Adidas is a pioneer in localizing production through its SpeedFactory concept—highly flexible and responsive micro-factories based in close proximity to the consumer. Benefits include accelerating the launch of new models (down to two or three months from 18 months), reduced stock and transportation, increase in workforce transparency, and making unsold items a thing of the past.
These faster and more sustainable manufacturing units are also a great way for established brands to test new technology on a small scale, before deciding on more extensive deployment. For example, digital knitting is currently being tested in this manner by Ministry of Supply and Adidas with its Knit for You bespoke experiment.
Micro-factories are an exciting concept for small entrepreneurs and designers as well. Instead of having to convince a manufacturer to make their prototype, then persuade a retailer to stock their product, they now have a far simpler way to create, manufacture and sell products. For example, once they have created a design, they can advertise it online and, when an order comes in, send the design files to a micro-factory for production.
There is something in it for consumers too
Arguably, the main benefactors of micro-factories could be the consumers. These agile units enable brands to meet customer expectations in terms of delivery time and to keep personalized goods at an attractive price. Delivery is fast, because production is nearby. And as more products are made on-demand, very little money is wasted in the process, allowing brands to control prices. Even made-to-measure becomes affordable.
Bouton Noir, a start-up incubated by French supermarket chain Auchan and a Lectra customer, is about to open high-tech workshops in the basement of Auchan shopping malls. There, customers will be able to order a made-to-measure shirt or pair of jeans, do their shopping, then collect the garment – all in little more than an hour!
When brands and manufacturers are yet to factor in the full advantages offered by micro-factories. When they do, will they include them massively in their supply chains? Are micro-factories set to become a standard, or to remain a marginal phenomenon, of production on demand?