What is the one thing that the critics of India’s economic growth agree on? Surely, it is the move from an agrarian economy to a service economy without developing a strong manufacturing base. Well, I will not debate India’s strategy but stimulate a discussion about what can be done now. Manufacturing in the Indian context is usually considered capital-intensive and is likely associated with large-scale enterprises such as Hero Motors.

Maybe it is the red tape or the ‘not so cool’ perception that manufacturing carries, we just don’t see many entrepreneurs building businesses around home-grown manufacturing competence. Despite the abundance of creative minds and growing consumerism, we are far away from gaining manufacturing dominance. In light of that, I see an opportunity to energise India’s manufacturing sector with the emergence of a highly popular technology – rapid manufacturing aka 3D printing. Barring some technical details, a 3D printer can be thought of as a desktop printer, which uses plastic ink and prints objects in three dimensions. Today, a 3D printer can produce (print) real world products – shoes, sunglasses and so on.

Not a replacement Having said that, the 3D printing technology is not a one-to-one replacement for traditional manufacturing. Obviously, traditional manufacturing through its years of development is cheaper and a lot more capable. Where 3D printing excels is in its ability to deliver consumer-specific customisation and a channel to express his/her creativity. Think about gifting your significant other an exclusive ‘made for you by me’ gift. One just needs to dream and a 3D printer could bring their ideas to life. As humans, we have an innate desire to create, and 3D printing offers the means to realise those desires. When we bring these two together, I believe tremendous value will be created.

But where can India play a role in this? As a first step, we need to embrace this technology. 3D printing has gained a lot of momentum in the US and China. Successful businesses in the West have flourished using 3D technology to deliver products such as custom-printed shoes and sunglasses. In a matter of time, such businesses/printers will reach India and money will flow out of the Indian economy. Now is the time to build indigenous 3D printing capabilities which could forge our path towards self-reliant manufacturing.

Challenges Some challenges that we could solve include making the technology simple to use, reducing the printing cost, and, introducing new materials. We need Indian entrepreneurs to jump in, solve these problems and build useful applications that connect the technology to the consumer. To play my role, I am taking up a small piece of the puzzle – 3D printing of customised smartphone covers. Today, more than 90 per cent of smartphone covers sold in India are imported. We cannot compete with international manufacturers on their price as we missed out on manufacturing competence some decades ago. Would you like to have your smartphone cover customised? That will be possible with 3D printing. We intend to test this idea in the Indian market soon. Stay tuned.

(Uma lives and breathes technology. An ardent fan of Apple he believes in making things simpler for others. He went to the University of Texas at Austin for his masters and then spent six years in Schlumberger, Houston. Since his college days, he has been working with 3D printing, has published in international journals and delivered talks on the same. He is now working on simplifying the design-to-product process in India. Currently, he is pursuing a management degree at ISB.)

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