A client recently sought my opinion on manufacturing gig platforms. The query got me thinking again about the gig economy and manufacturing concept. A couple of years ago, we heard many optimistic forecasts about super-flexible, on-demand factories.

The initial idea was to utilize spare factory capacity. Digital technology and flexible automation provided a solid technological basis for this approach. A new manufacturing revolution—sometimes known as “manufacturing uberization”—could have taken off. But it has not!

Yes, we can find examples of flexible, on-demand manufacturing “speed factories” around the world. But these are not setting a trend on a broad scale. Most of these factories utilize additive manufacturing. 3D printing technology provides enormous flexibility.

What happened to futuristic concepts based on highly flexible, configurable robotic lines—that is, fully automated factories capable of making cars, robots, or other “big and complex” products?

Adidas’ decision to step back from the speed-factory concept in 2020 has raised doubts about the future of major manufacturers embracing gig manufacturing as a standalone business model.

I am sure you can think of the hurdles and challenges faced by such a model. These can include ineffective traceability, missing accountability after the product is handed over within the value chain stage, quality issues, insufficient flexibility of production assets, and complicated (and often disconnected) supply chains.

On-demand manufacturing, however, still seems like a viable, business-sustainable concept. Cloud-based on-demand manufacturing (Xometry, for instance) and quote-to-order platforms (Fictiv is one) connect manufacturers on the demand side with the providers of machining, injection molding, and 3D printing capabilities on the supply side.

Manufacturers can benefit from quality-driven partner ecosystems that utilize robust management and quality-control processes. Orchestrated networks of suppliers and partners make supply chains less vulnerable to global disruptions, providing elasticity in R&D and production capacities.

On-demand manufacturing that leverages networked supply chains seems to be a much more feasible business concept than speed factories that seek to provide complex products. On-demand manufacturers need to be less like marketplaces—and more like virtual contract manufacturers empowered by a digital core.

Don’t get me wrong—the gig B2B concept is far from dead. What is perhaps missing now is a more solid business case and a focus on products that have more complexity and higher value—thus generating margins that can cover high-tech investment and operating costs.

Jan Burian is senior director, head of IDC Manufacturing Insights EMEA and leader of Europe: Future of Operations Practice.