Now that the media hype of 2013 has settled . . . somewhat, 2014 will be a pivotal year in which we see small, tangible steps towards reality. Below are a few trends and commentary on what we’re seeing in the market:
1. Ecosystem components begin to marry. Investments, acquisitions, partnerships, and new developments will focus around unifying printers, software, and services for seamless 3D printing experiences. For example, Adobe recently announced direct integration with MakerBot and Shapeways to close the gap between 3D modeling tools and what printers need to physically produce objects. Other major software vendors like Autodesk will play an evangelist role in bringing ecosystem players together to enable interoperability across proprietary platforms.
2. New startups stretch our imaginations of business model disruption. 3D printing is a catalyst for rethinking inefficient analog processes. Startup SOLS aims to disrupt the entire orthotics value chain with an end-to-end digital service for custom shoe insoles. Customers scan a 3D model of their feet, input data on weight, lifestyle, and activity patterns, and send to print.
While the basic technology behind 3D printing has been around for decades, recent hype and coverage has recast a spotlight on the industry. Over the last few years, incumbent and emerging vendors have been rapidly developing 3D printers, each more productive than the last, with an ever expanding variety of printable materials and possible use cases.
Outside of consumer hobbyists, 3D printing will have the greatest impact on businesses that design and manufacture discrete products, introducing rapid prototyping to speed up development cycles and an alternative production method for customized finished objects.
What does this mean for CIOs and technology management departments?
As the resident technology expert, you may be called upon to evaluate the hardware and feasibility of 3D printing for your business. Beyond assessment, businesses may demand:
Technology support and management. If your business decides to incorporate 3D printers, as a new networked device, support could entail adapting and integrating the 3D printing ecosystem into current product lifecycle management platforms and processes, not to mention troubleshooting hardware and software issues.
2013 was a year in which media attention and hype targeted 3D printing: “artisanal” do-it-yourself (DIY) upstarts on Kickstarter making headlines across the blogosphere every week; high-profile speculation, such as President Obama’s quip that 3D printing will create a new manufacturing economy in the US; and Victoria's Secret models strutting down the runway in elaborate 3D printed corsets and signature wing accessories.
The excitement has reached the C-suite, where execs are wondering how this elusive and unfamiliar new technology will affect their business. As the resident techie, the CIO should expect the questions to come her way: What are the business implications? How fast is the technology developing? What are the implications for business technology at your organization?
Here are three angles on how 3D printing is driving business impact and digital disruption:
1. 3D printing can create tremendous business value — today. 3D printing enables key business imperatives in the age of the customer: faster time to market, new products and new markets, and the expansion of personalized products or services.