One of the most hyped technologies right now is 3D printing. Gartner lists 3D printing among its top trends to watch in 2016. PwC reports that two-thirds of all manufacturers are already experimenting with 3D printing. So we’re all clear, 3D printing is a process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file. The creation of a 3D printed object is achieved using additive processes. In an additive process an object is created by laying down successive layers of material until the entire object is created.
We may all have a 3D printer in our office one day. Or we may take advantage of 3D printers at retail-based IT solution centers such as CompuCom’s new Tech-Zone.
In the meantime, 3D printing offers an object lesson in innovation. Here are insights from the creativity swirling around 3D printing that apply to innovation in our own organizations.
Innovation takes time. The concepts behind 3D printing have been around since the 1980s or earlier. It’s only in the past few years that 3D printing has made commercial headway.
Even after they’re introduced to the marketplace, innovations typically move through what Gartner calls the Hype Cycle. New technologies follow a path from “trigger” to “peak of inflated expectations” before they reach a “plateau of productivity.”
To accelerate the movement from idea to solution, companies must foster a culture of innovation — one that enables new ideas to bubble up, rewards calculated risk and gives people permission to “fail forward.” They also require innovation-focused processes that connect the right people and drive rapid iteration to work out the kinks.
The first materials used in 3D printing were general-purpose plastics. Now materials such as nylon, polymers, sandstone and a growing range of metals can be used in specialized 3D printers.
But innovators outside technology and manufacturing are leveraging 3D printing in fascinating new ways. In fashion, numerous companies (and individuals) sell items like 3D-printed jewelry and shoes. Major players such as Adidas have announced or are selling 3D-printed products.
In food, creative chefs are using 3D-print technology to crystalize layers of sugar into geometric shapes and to “print” dishes from pasta to pizza. Food-industry influencers such as the Culinary Institute of America are experimenting with other 3D-printed foods.
In medicine, 3D printing is being used to create personalized drugs, prosthetic limbs, skin, bone, heart valves, tissues with embedded blood vessels, and even organs. These are all superb examples of outside-the-box thinking that leverages emerging technology for new purposes.
Powerful new technologies beget related solutions. As a complement to 3D printers, 3D scanners (some types of which actually predate 3D printers) enable users to scan a three-dimensional object, generate a CAD file and print a reproduction. This technique is being used in industries as varied as filmmaking, archeology and paleontology. It holds tremendous promise for any situation where a replacement part is no longer available but is needed quickly.
Another example is so-called 4D printing or “self-assembly.” The concept applies to 3D-printer-produced objects that can later change shape or otherwise transform on their own. The printer file includes code that dictates not only the object’s shape but also how it should adapt to external forces such as motion, air, water or a change in temperature.
How might your industry build on 3D-print technology to develop new capabilities? Or how might your business approach other existing technologies in the same way, extending current functionality into new opportunities?
At some point, every new idea gets left behind in the lab or finds practical application in the marketplace. And in fact, the place 3D printing shows the most near-term promise is in the innovation process itself. Manufacturers will surely use 3D printing to produce finished goods more efficiently and effectively. But where 3D printing will really shine is in prototyping.
With 3D printers, manufacturers can quickly and cost-effectively build and test new prototypes, significantly accelerating product development. The finished piece might demand tighter tolerances or more sophisticated materials than are supported by existing 3D-print technology. But 3D printing will be integral to bringing the product to market.
To what extent will 3D printing ultimately revolutionize manufacturing? How will it transform medicine or other industries? That remains to be seen, though industry observers are almost unanimous in their predictions for significant impact.
In the meantime, CompuCom is including 3D printers and scanners in select Tech-Zone stores. We don’t expect hordes of customers to use them right away. But who’s to say which inventive small company will come up with the next market-changing innovation — either using 3D printers, or merely inspired by them. We’re excited to help them create the future!
Please leave your comments below on the future of 3D-print technology, or how it’s used today by your organization.