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Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing by Hod Lipson, Melba Kurman

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Chapter 3

Nimble manufacturing: Good, fast, and cheap

At my auto mechanic there’s a sign taped to the cash register that says “You can have it done good, fast, or cheap. Pick any two.” This enduring joke sums it up. But what if my auto mechanic is wrong?

Halfway across the world, a distant toothbrush factory sells children’s toothbrushes for 10 cents apiece. This factory employs advanced machines and technicians. That sounds good, like a high quality outfit. The factory’s daily output of toothbrushes is over 300,000 pieces a day. That’s fast.

Could it be that my salty old car mechanic got it wrong after all? Maybe you can have it done good, fast, and cheap, no compromises necessary. But maybe he wasn’t wrong. There’s more to the story than at first meets the eye.

Mass production is riddled with hidden costs and delays. If you consider the big picture from the perspective of a company rather than the consumer, mass production is not cheap. Nor is the process of transforming a design concept into a mass-produced product particularly fast. If you desire anything other than a product aimed at the lowest common denominator, mass-produced products are not particularly good either.

Small-batch mass manufacturing is an oxymoron. The lower the product’s end price to the consumer, the more critical are high-volume sales to the company. This is why the toothbrush factory—to earn back the investment involved in producing a simple plastic toothbrush—sells its mass-produced wares in big batches. ...

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