Some innovation just flows out of people regardless of their situation. Other times innovation can be coaxed and encouraged out of its grey, squishy home, and that’s the approach that Ford is now taking with engineers. In order to fully enable their creativity, engineers at Ford are given Makerbot 3D printers.
Access to 3D printers allows engineers to design at a faster pace. Prototyping with injection molding is slow and costly; there are weeks between when a design is created digitally and when the prototype might arrive. With 3D printing the wait is a few minutes to a few hours. If that power-window button is too narrow for comfort, it’s just a few moments modifying the file and a similar amount of time to print the new, more ergonomic one. There’s no time or money wasted on shipping, so product debugging happens in real time at low cost.
I can’t help but notice the irony of the company that was created by the man that revolutionized manufacturing with the assembly line now giving employees machines that can make end products in one step. While every employee at their Silicon Valley Lab in Palo Alto has a 3D printer, I don’t know exactly which engineering positions will qualify as Ford divvies them out over the coming months. Still, this is a bold move by Ford (to borrow one of their slogans). When well-known brands adopt 3D printing practices it puts pressure on other well-known brands to do something similar. The decision makers at Ford are clearly forward thinkers, because it’s not just what comes out of the printers that will make the company more efficient and profitable, but also what’s going on in the minds of the engineers and, perhaps more importantly, future engineers. If you’re applying for a design-level position at Ford then you know that your personal pace will have to keep up with that of the Makerbot. That’s something to think about.