Fast Company on Dok Solution by Tina Amirtha!

By Tina Amirtha, Fast CompanyFast Company on Dok Solution by Tina Amirtha!

Tech Forecast

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 even further?

3-D's Limits

"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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