Here at Enterprise Efficiency, we have a fascination with 3D printing. A quick search of our archives shows 10 articles on the subject, and you can bet we're not nearly finished discussing it.
A couple of factors that are coming together make me want to call attention to 3D printing today. One of them could mean a new opportunity for retailers. The other one could change the relationship OEMs have with upstream and downstream customers.
First, let's look at the retail side of things. According to a recent story in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, a store now open in Manhattan is dedicated to the idea of creating the product you want while you wait. That's right. It's the dawn of the retail 3D printing era.
Now, in fairness, the store will also let you pick up a MakerBot replicator, the poster child for the 3D printing surge that all the really cool tech-industry publications (such as E2) have been covering. Sales of MakerBots remain a stastical non-event, but there's a momentum and buzz around the printers that we've seen before in other technologies that were statistical non-events at first, such as early PDAs, smartphones, and tablets.
Print quality, one of the issues that 3D printers have faced, is addressed with one of the newest devices. The Formlabs printer works through a lithography process, rather than extrusion. Since beams of light can be far more finely focused than nozzles of plastic goo, a device like the Formlabs can create models to much tighter tolerances than some of the devices we've seen from companies such as MakerBot. Price has been the main problem with lithography 3D printers, but the good folks at Formlabs have their device coming in at less than $3,000. That's a great price point for retail.
Here's where things get really interesting for IT and across the OEM supply chain. For IT, on-site 3D printing means thinking about SKUs in a whole new way. Instead of being tied to warehouse shelves and bins, SKUs are tied to files. That's why a lot of IT departments will end up studying the backends for online gaming companies and Netflix (which has been remarkably open about its infrastructure). Studying these organizations will help enterprise IT figure out how to support customers expecting to walk out with a freshly minted widget.
Those factory-fresh widgets will create just as many issues for OEMs and their IT groups. I've written before about the importance of OEM CIOs getting their heads around 3D printing issues, but I'm beginning to think I got one aspect wrong. I thought that most OEMs might have five years or a little more before 3D printing became an enormous issue. Instead, the rapid advancement in printers and the growing awareness of what they make possible is causing me to think many OEMs will face significant 3D printing issues within the next two to three years.
One of the big effects of this will be a change in time sensitivity. For decades, OEM rhythms have rocked to the beat of the factory floor. The length of time to set up an assembly process (and even to crank out the first prototypes) was so much greater than anything in the IT timeline that the pressure on IT was largely taken away. Now, though, a CAD file that comes in on Tuesday morning could be rendered in a prototype that is given to FedEx on Tuesday afternoon. Without much warning at all, IT becomes the bottleneck.
We've talked about Internet time for years when it comes to trends, fads, and many other data-driven concepts. Now the worlds of bits and atoms are mashing together more thoroughly, and at a faster clip, than ever before. The impact on the retail and OEM IT groups will be huge. Get ready.