The Ultimate Guide to Manufacturing

Manufacturing can broadly be defined as any process that takes raw material or component inputs, and through processing those inputs, produces a finished product that can be sold to a customer.  It is a broad field that covers many domains; everything that we can see that is not a naturally generated element has been manufactured.  Houses, cars, desks, phones, clothing, roads, the list is endless.  Over the years, humanity has learned, through much trial and error, many best practices in manufacturing.  The industrial revolution enabled, for the first time, mass production of goods at output levels that would have been impossible to do manually.  From that point forward, manufacturing has continuously improved ever since.

In this guide to manufacturing, we will cover:

The History of Manufacturing

The history of manufacturing is closely intertwined with the history of technology, as every new technology, since the very beginning of humanity, must have been manufactured to be used by people.  As technology developed and become more intricate and specialized, distinct crafts and trades began to form and there was a need for a system of teaching and passing on the wisdom to the next generations.

The Pre-Industrial Age

For almost all the pre-industrialized era, the guild system filled the need for manufacturing of complex items.  The guild system was a structure, whereby a group of masters, journeyman, and apprentices controlled all of a particular craft in a given region.  Additionally, they were often given the exclusive right to perform that trade by a monarch and possessed all of the necessary tooling and materials.  The disadvantages of this system were that it created an effective monopoly which stifled innovation, increased prices, and reduced output.

The First Industrial Revolution

The first industrial revolution was truly the beginning of the modern era of globalized commerce, as the introduction of machines into the factory increased the level of output far and above what a human could ever hope to achieve manually.

The Second Industrial Revolution

The second industrial revolution was marked by the introduction of electricity into the factory. This included, light bulbs, telephones and many other electromechanical devices that further improved production output.

The Third Industrial Revolution

Otherwise known as the digital age, the third industrial revolution was the introduction of computers and the internet into the factory. The capabilities of the computer, combined with the internet, allowed for the creation of sophisticated global logistics networks, product design software, production controls, and intelligent machinery.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution

Many of today’s buzzwords: automation, robotics, 3D printing, quantum computing, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, and 5G telecommunications will be at the center of the fourth industrial revolution, which many say we are about to enter. In a leap from the digital revolution, industry 4.0 will be marked by the introduction of fully autonomous production systems communicating and integrating with each other across the supply chain.

Manufacturing Methods

There are 3 well-known manufacturing methods. The method used is dependent upon the volume and uniqueness of the product.

Continuous Flow Manufacturing

Continuous flow manufacturing, also known as mass production, is used to produce high volumes of identical products very efficiently. This method creates economies of scale that bring down the cost per unit. Common products that are mass produced are cars, phones, chemicals, and gasoline.

Batch Production

In contrast to flow manufacturing, batch production produces products in set “batches”, whereby each operation is completed step by step over a series of workstations. The main advantages of batch production are that multiple products can be run on the same production line and it is better for cash management. The disadvantage is that the production line must be reconfigured prior to each new batch, which results in downtime and additional labor costs.

Job Manufacturing

When there is only one unique product required, job manufacturing is utilized. It is not as efficient as flow or batch manufacturing, and thus the prices are typically much higher for job manufactured products, which include, houses, bridges, machinery installs, and specialized tooling.

Mass Customization

Mass production can produce high volumes of identical products very efficiently. But what if it were possible to build products with the level of uniqueness of job manufacturing, but at the efficiency and cost of flow manufacturing? Mass customization is the concept of having the best of all three manufacturing methods. It is a unique capability of additive manufacturing, otherwise known as 3D printing, to produce batches of unique products. Consumers would prefer products customized to their specific need, but the issue is that it is not economical to manufacture high volumes of unique products. 3D printing can produce many unique products all at once in the same production run. Each product need only be held as a digital file and can be “printed” on-demand when the customer requests it.

Lean Manufacturing

Lean manufacturing, also known as the Toyota Production System, revolves around the simple concept of eliminating all waste in the process, with waste being defined as any part of the production process that does not add value for the customer. A few categories of waste are transportation, inventory, motion, waiting, overproduction, over-processing, and defects. Companies that implement lean are seeking to eliminate waste and improve quality through continuous improvement and employee engagement.

Manufacturing Quality Control

Quality control is critical in any production system as it ensures that customers are getting exactly what they need to perform the required function flawlessly. There are several industry best practices and certificates relating to manufacturing quality control including: Total quality management, six sigma, and ISO 9000.

Six Sigma

One of the most well-known quality control frameworks is six sigma, pioneered by Motorola, which deals with creating stable and predictable processes. Utilizing statistical quality control, it seeks to control and reduce the number of defects in a process. It is often combined with lean manufacturing to create lean six sigma, which seeks to combine the advantages of efficiency and employee engagement of lean with the process controls of six sigma.

ISO 9000

ISO 9000 is an industry standard certificate that deals with the fundamentals of an effective quality management system. The central tenets include: employee engagement, continuous improvement, leadership, process approach, and evidence-based decision making.

Total Quality Management

TQM explains that all functions of an organization, not just the manufacturing function, are responsible for quality management. All functions of an organization should work to improve their internal processes to reduce errors in decision making. TQM is especially evident in large organizations whereby there are many checks and balances and processes that must be undergone to ensure that the best business decisions are being made by all the relevant employees.


Fabrication deals with the actual processing of raw material and can be achieved by a variety of methods and machinery including machining (subtractive), molding, forming, joining, and additive manufacturing.


Machining is a process by which a cutting tool, controlled by a computer is used to carve out an object from a solid block of material, typically metal or polymer. The advantages are the ability to hold very tight tolerances and produce parts with excellent mechanical properties.


Molding involves injecting molten material of metal (casting) or plastic (injection molding) into a mold in the shape of the part that is to be produced. The advantages of molding are the ability to produce high volumes efficiently and to hold tight tolerances and achieve great mechanical properties. Disadvantages are the high cost and long lead times to manufacture the specialized tooling.


Joining could include any assembly process of parts that have been previously manufactured through machining, forming, additive or molding. Welding, bonding, and fastening are common joining techniques. How components mate up in the joining process is a major consideration when designing for manufacturability as components must be able to be fabricated and then assembled together with other components.


Forming, often used when manufacturing sheet metal parts, is the pressing of a sheet of material over a specialized die to make a part. High volumes can be made with forming, however, there is a high fixed cost due to the requirement of a specialized die tool used to shape the part.

Additive Manufacturing

Additive Manufacturing, otherwise known as 3D printing, is the building of a product layer by layer, either through extruding material through a nozzle, binding powdered material using a laser or a glue, or polymerizing using a laser. The advantages of additive manufacturing are the ability to create highly complex and customized parts, produce in low volumes without the use of tooling, and the reduction of wasted material. Additive manufacturing is a relatively new technology, but its ability to manufacture digital files on-demand could be a game-changer for conventional manufacturing and be a key innovation further developed as we move further into industry 4.0.

Manufacturing Engineering

Manufacturing engineering deals with being able to turn raw materials into finished goods as efficiently as possible. The product design, material selection, manufacturing methods, and workstation layout all must be optimized for maximum efficiency.

Product Design

The manufacturing engineer is an integral part of the product design process and works closely with the design engineer. The design engineer has the responsibility of designing a product that can be efficiently manufactured. The manufacturing engineer is the person the design engineer consults with when discussing manufacturability. The specific operations that need to be done to the raw inputs and the amount of time and resources that will be required to make the product are all things that must be considered during product design to ensure good manufacturability.

For example, a product that will be fabricated using injection molding should not be designed the same as a product made using 3D printing. Injection molded parts require a mold that must be machined; the machine tool is limited in the geometry that it can produce, as complex features are either expensive or impossible to produce. As a result, if internal cavities and features are desired, multiple parts must be assembled together. In contrast, with 3D printing, a product with complex features and internal geometry can easily be manufactured. Each of the limitations and capabilities of each fabrication method should be considered by the manufacturing engineer and communicated to the design engineer.

Contract Manufacturing

Contract manufacturing, also known as outsourcing, has developed somewhat of a bad reputation in recent years due to the loss of jobs that can ultimately occur. However, despite the negative connotation, contract manufacturing is simply the purchase of a manufacturing service from an entity outside the firm, and it can be for a variety of reasons including: cost, technical expertise, capacity, lead time, or quality.

Types of Contract Manufacturing

There are a few different types of contract manufacturing that can be used and the advantages and disadvantages of each should be analyzed by the firm for each case. Entire products can be outsourced; Apple for example, does all the designing and the marketing for their products, but outsources the manufacturing to Foxconn. In this case, product design and marketing are Apple’s expertise, whereas manufacturing is the expertise of Foxconn, so they partner to each play to each firm’s strength to make the products.

Individual components can also be outsourced, which is a very common practice. Boeing and Airbus do not manufacture every single one of the millions of components that go into their airplanes, they outsource many of the components to companies that specialize in manufacturing those categories of components. For instance, if someone were building a deck; they likely would not chop down the tree and make all the screws themselves. They would most likely buy those components from the store.

Contract labor is also a form of contract manufacturing. Often, when a company needs to have a flexible workforce that it can increase and decrease rapidly, it will contract for labor with a company that supplies contract labor.

There are also several formats for a statement of work that a firm could give a contract manufacturer when outsourcing. A build to print job, simply means that the manufacturer must build the product to the customer’s exact specification. A build to spec job, means that the company must build a product that meets a certain specification, such as thermal resistance, strength, etc. For example, Boeing and Airbus purchase jet engines from companies such as GE and Rolls Royce under this sort of format. GE and Rolls Royce own the design but supply the engine at the specification required to function properly with the rest of the airplane.

In contrast to a build to spec or build to print job, a design-build job is where the supplier both designs and manufactures the product. This type of statement of work is typically used when the customer’s design and manufacturing teams are at capacity or if the supplier can provide a certain level of design expertise and innovation for the customer. For example, since additive manufacturing is a relatively new process, many companies do not have much experience or expertise in creating a product design that is optimized for additive manufacturing. So, for instance, they may choose to use a design build service such as ZABFAB Manufacturing to provide the product design and additive manufacturing expertise.

Why Do Companies Outsource?

There are several reasons a company may choose to outsource, including cost, technical expertise, strategic importance, capacity, lead time, capital equipment, quality, and skills. The most frequent reason for outsourcing is cost. One company can do a job cheaper and more efficiently than another company. A company may also choose to outsource because another company has more experience at performing an operation and may be doing it for many other companies, so they have greater economies of scale. They can leverage the volume across all of their customers to manufacture at a lower unit price for each individual customer.

A company may also be at the limit of their resources as well and rather than hiring more workers or purchasing more equipment and space, they may simply outsource to a company that has capacity. This is effective if the company feels that the surge in demand will be short lived and that an investment in more capacity will go to waste over a period because it will not be utilized.

The Future of Manufacturing

Manufacturing has always progressed in tandem with advances in technology and the future of manufacturing will undoubtedly be tied to the future of technology. There are several buzzwords that have the potential to make industry 4.0 the most consequential industrial revolution yet, including: artificial intelligence, quantum computing, automation, robotics, 3D printing, internet of things, and 5G communication.

Industry 4.0

Automation and Robotics

Already we are seeing more robotics and automation introduced into the factory. With industry 4.0, these robots could be working fully autonomously together in a system that expands, not just within the firm, but external to the firm, up and down the supply chain. Repetitive jobs that require a low amount of creativity will be replaced with robots and more jobs will be needed to find innovative and creative solutions to design, implement, maintain, and iterate on these manufacturing systems.

Additive Manufacturing

Additive manufacturing (3D printing) will certainly play a major role in industry 4.0. Mass customization and the digitization of supply chains will offer a great deal of value to companies and consumers. Consumers will be able to order products personalized to their exact requirements, and companies will easily be able to supply this consumer preference with on-demand manufacturing. Lower work-in-process and finished goods inventory will mean companies can offer more affordable prices and products that better meet the consumer’s needs.

Already, today, 3D printing is providing a lot of value to companies looking for rapid prototyping, unique product design capabilities, small batch production, and on-demand manufacturing.

Interested in Learning More About Additive Manufacturing?

Interested in learning more about how 3D printing can provide solutions for your manufacturing needs? Whether it be prototyping, product design, small batch production or on-demand manufacturing, ZABFAB manufacturing can offer many additive manufacturing solutions for your projects!

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