- Fast Company on Dok Solution by Tina Amirtha!
What 3-D Printing Can't Do
Rapid prototyping has graduated to on-demand production. Here's
what that means for the future of manufacturing.
By Tina Amirtha
Jack Strauser’s relationship with the Chinese manufacturing
industry is incredibly tense. Strauser, founder and CEO of
Florida-based company Dok Solution, believes a Chinese factory
stole his electronic charging station designs and then offered
them to a U.S. distributor, who now sells them.
"I don’t have a million dollars to just throw around to defend
my patent," says Strauser. "I’ll spend every dime I have, but I
have a lot of patents. It could financially ruin me."
Strauser is currently preparing to take the U.S. distributor
to trial for patent infringement, with the claim that its
main factory in Shenzhen poached his designs. But he fears that
his small company may not be able to fight back against his much
larger opponent. It’s a David and Goliath story that, in many
ways, reflects the greater mass production economy.
Reports about the faltering Chinese economy, the world’s leader
in mass production, bring up questions over whether tectonic
shifts are coming to transform the manufacturing sector. And
given the sharp increase in global hardware startups since 2012,
it remains to be seen if small businesses, like Strauser’s, have
applied enough pressure yet on the manufacturing world to favor
their interests. Rapid prototyping tools—namely desktop 3-D
printers—have bolstered small businesses’ paths to market in
recent years. While China’s manufacturing activity declines, is
there an opportunity for 3-D printing to transform manufacturing
"Digital printing is excellent, for me, to put my invention in a
CAD design and have it made so I can get the samples. That’s
where it saves money in the United States," says Strauser, who
has over 25 years of experience in manufacturing.
Strauser’s charging docks are good candidates for 3-D printing.
Reduced to their components, his docks comprise a few pieces of
plastic and some electronics. A 3-D printer could handle
everything except the assembly and the electronic components—the
resistors, capacitors, and inductors—which would need to be
ordered separately, from China or elsewhere.
Yet Strauser’s production lines will remain firmly planted in
Chinese factories. A 3-D printer wouldn’t be able to handle the
volumes of plastic Strauser needs to meet his clients’ volume
demands within an acceptable timeframe and with a good quality
standard; his distributors ask for a 2,000-item minimum. Mass
production, he says, is the only method that can accommodate
that volume at a reasonable price point, so he’s staying in
China for that, choosing to struggle to keep his business afloat
in the sea of factories and companies there.
"None of the companies we work with would accept the quality of
products that comes off a 3-D printer."
For now, Dok's Strauser still goes to China five or six times
per year. Lately, however, he has had trouble finding reliable
factories to work with, witnessing firsthand how they are
struggling to stay open, amid pressure to increase domestic
wages and accommodate labor law changes. Over the years, he has
moved from factory to factory, juggling three to four
contractors at a time. If he had the money, he says, he would
manufacture as much as he could in the United States. And 3-D
printing wouldn’t be a part of the process.
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