Advancements in Industry 4.0 technology have made it easier than ever for small businesses to contribute to an ongoing manufacturing boom. In particular, because of these advancements, our small 3D printing business in Northern Michigan, DreamLab Industries, can print and design prototypes for manufacturers around the world. Though Industry 4.0 makes small businesses like ours possible, it also acts as a double-edged sword. This current speed of advancement in technology presents a unique challenge for small business owners involved in this disruption of the manufacturing sector. While struggling to build their business, these small business owners also must keep up to date with the rapid cycle of technological trends brought on by this disruption and keep pace with larger companies that have the resources and the human capital to integrate these trends into their businesses just as rapidly.      

Additive manufacturing markets are largely dominated by a few big, well-financed printing companies. Their customers are usually big manufacturers that tend to be in line with Industry 4.0 and are very comfortable working with organizations that supply these technologies. For smaller manufacturers, the need to find small accounts and other niche markets to build their business involves the added need to explain to customers the importance of these technologies. Integrating such things as IIOT, automation, AI, big data, and robotics into our business is an additional challenge, because this requires resources that our small business must carefully manage to maintain financial solvency.  

Though striving to keep up with the advancements and technological advantages of Industry 4.0 has been difficult, ironically, these advancements have also been the solution to many of our challenges. Use of these technologies has helped free up time to find new niche markets in which we can thrive. Quickly adapting to these niches is key and is one area where small manufacturing businesses might have a slight advantage over their larger competitors. Long-established, well-financed businesses sometimes grow stale and less adaptable. They can maintain the status quo because survival is no longer paramount. Our commitment and ability to rapidly evolve into markets that are yet untapped has been one of our greatest strengths.

In addition to short-run manufacturing and prototyping, we have developed numerous micro-markets that have served as a second-tier form of financing for our operation. One of these micro-markets has been in the realm of obsolescent parts. Finding centralized suppliers and industry leaders that serve niche customers who are looking for these parts instead of marketing to individual customers has proved an effective strategy. Working with businesses who already work with these customers, building relationships and educating these businesses about what our 3D printers can do is much easier than educating each individual customer.

While adaptation is important on the business side, because of our limited resources and, therefore, our careful and limited selection of machines and equipment, our ability to adapt and evolve has been just as important on the technology side. We source smaller, less expensive machines and adapt these machines to serve up some of the larger or more complex print jobs that customers demand. Sometimes combining these machines with other 3D printers that we have in our manufacturing facility leads to innovative engineering solutions and allows us to think outside the box and push the technology into places it otherwise wouldn’t go. Reverse engineering, trying to match the progress of big 3D printer manufacturers, and trying to improve on this progress allows us to know the strengths and weaknesses of each of our machines and helps us further assess what is possible.

Through the use of hacks and repurposed equipment, we are now implementing closed loop network monitoring, robotics, and software solutions to increase the speed and efficiency of our prints. We’ve also ramped up our use of technologies like 3D scanning in order to increase efficiency and offer more diverse design solutions to our customers. To keep up with the changing knowledge of our industry, we try to learn the important information and techniques that larger companies are focused on using and implementing. Cold calling engineers at these larger companies and asking them questions about their research in upcoming technological advancements has been invaluable to streamlining our knowledge so that we remain at the forefront of our industry.    

No doubt these technological strategies that we’ve employed have freed up more time for our staff to take advantage of market opportunities that we otherwise wouldn’t have time to pursue.  Even our marketing strategy involves using automation as much as possible. The strategic use of our website along with automated surveys, marketing campaigns, and email responses not only frees up our employees to work on other aspects of the business, but it also gives them the time to interact with customers in a more meaningful way when human interaction is necessary.

Long-term we expect more growth as we continue to bring all components of our business together using automation, IIOT, robotics and other Industry 4.0 solutions. Freeing up production, marketing, design, and other business aspects to these technologies, we hope will enable us to pursue more valuable interactions with existing customers, help us build relationships with new customers, and allow us to explore new markets where we can use 3D printing and its associative technology in new and exciting ways.  

For small businesses, knowledge and the willingness to learn this knowledge, even a DIY mindset, can help integrate industry 4.0 technology, but a lack of resources and finances can also hinder progress. Businesses like DreamLab Industries centered around disruptive technologies, such as additive manufacturing with 3D printing, might take more time to grow than those using older tech. But using automation and IIOT solutions to integrate all the pieces of the business can pay off over time and free employees to focus on finding new markets, to innovate new ways to use their promising technology, and to do what humans still do best—serve customers, relate to them, and help them find new solutions to some of their most difficult problems.