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The Internet has changed just about everything about the way we communicate with each other. Email, instant messaging, social media networks, and increasingly even voice calls, are all made possible because the web connects us all. But it’s not just people who can now talk to each other; it’s our systems as well. While once corporate data was kept in heavily protected silos, now companies have found many useful ways to share data for the benefit of customers.
The major shipping carriers are a great example. If you buy a product from almost any major retailer, you can usually get the UPS, USPS, or FedEx shipping details right on the retailer’s website. This convenient capability is possible because the shipper’s system and the retailer’s system connect through a bit of technology called an API (application programming interface). Amazon doesn’t have access to all of FedEx’s corporate data, of course, just the bits of relevant information that it makes sense to offer to its customers.
In manufacturing, APIs are making it possible for manufacturers to provide a whole new level of service to their clients. What was once a painful, time-consuming and tedious process, can now be handled mainly online, with the product lifecycle moving quickly due to automation and unified systems.
To understand why manufacturing APIs represent a significant breakthrough, it’s useful to take a look back at how we got to where we are today.
We might think of mass-production facilities like auto plants when we think of manufacturing, but the word means “handicraft.” Anything produced for trade or sale can be called manufactured. Early in history, this may have been one artisan or tradesman creating an article of clothing or a piece of pottery. As products became more complicated, it no longer made sense for one individual to know how to do every step in the process, and something akin to the modern assembly line was born. Interchangeable parts, often credited to the American inventor, Eli Whitney, enabled the move to mass production.
The manufacturing plants that most of us think of today have two top priorities, low production cost, and consistent results. Keeping costs down was a major factor in the rise of offshore manufacturing in the 1970’s and 1980’s, when American firms looked to China and other areas of the world where labor costs were low.
Mass production of goods overseas is an efficient and economical model for certain types of products and companies. If you’re Nike, it makes sense. But these days, it isn’t only huge companies that produce products for market. Small businesses, entrepreneurs, Kickstarter creators, and even hobbyists all want the ability to create new inventions efficiently, especially electronic devices.
The cost and complexity of dealing with large overseas manufacturers were significant barriers for modern-day inventors. PCB prototyping and PCB assembly was slow and expensive, if it was even possible at all, and quantity minimums created too much risk for small and growing companies. To fill this gap, a new type of manufacturing company has emerged.
Today, there are some self-service oriented, cloud-powered, agile manufacturing organizations that can efficiently serve the need for cost effective, rapid pcb prototyping and small batch runs. Many also offer inventory management and order fulfillment services.
The “killer app” of self-service production, may very well be the manufacturing API. The ability to integrate a seller’s e-commerce or ERP system with their manufacturing partner’s fulfillment platform closes the loop and makes the seamless delivery of products to customers possible. Product designers focus on their innovations and their core business functions, while the manufacturing partner takes care of everything from circuit board assembly to packaging and shipping.
Seamless communication between both people and systems makes rapid innovation possible in the modern world. Hurdles that made it difficult for new market entrants to get their product made, let alone compete, are being overcome with today’s technology. Manufacturing APIs may not be the sexiest thing in the world, but they help get your products into your customer’s hands quickly and painlessly. Innovative products are produced with innovative processes, and that’s a beautiful thing.