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3-D printing will be a big deal for smaller businesses, too

For midmarket and small-business CIOs, hearing about the latest technologies or IT strategy trends sometimes amounts to little more than cacophonous buzz. What’s cutting edge in tech is often explained or measured in relation to its effect on the enterprise — and is often well outside a midmarket budget.

One example of this (or so I thought) is three-dimensional printing. It’s getting a lot of buzz these days, especially as the types of objects that can be created move beyond plastic tchotchkes and headline-grabbing 3-D-printed guns to things as stunningly complex and useful as artificial limbs and replacement organs for humans.

So, naturally, my ears perked up when analyst Daryl Plummer listed 3-D printing among Gartner’s top IT predictions — things expected to be real game-changers in the next few years — at the recent Gartner Symposium/ITxpo. Yes, IT people, this is something you need to pay attention to, Plummer said. For large companies, especially manufacturers and retailers, this is going to change if not everything, then at least a heck of a lot. As Plummer pointed out, when you start printing products, distribution systems change, the software changes, the way the work is done changes. “Just like the industrial revolution, people will begin to change where they live, what jobs they do, what products they produce, and I can guarantee that will affect an enterprise,” he said.

Right, but what about smaller companies? Well , Plummer hit right on my thought that 3-D printing sounds like something for really big companies with really big bucks to worry about. And for the most part right now, it is. But like every other way-out-there technology, prices are coming down. While high-end models (the sort you’d use to print an organ, for example) run well into the tens of thousands of dollars, consumer versions — albeit obviously smaller, slower and less complex — can now be had for less than $3,000. And that price point is why CEOs and CIOs of smaller businesses need to start paying  attention to this technology, even if they never plan to print so much as a plastic figurine.

As Plummer put it, technically, 3-D printing is “simply an additive process for building up physical layers, based on a digital template.”  That’s technically speaking. Let loose upon the world, Plummer opined, it will also most likely be a really easy way to counterfeit physical goods. As such, it could be a really easy way to cause big-time damages.

“What about the small business that creates little artistic designs? Maybe a bowl or cup or some kind of wall hanging, and they have a digital template for that and it’s stolen and now people are printing out their own?” Plummer said.  “Those people are being affected directly and immediately by the loss of business they could otherwise have had.”

How fast does he think people will start stealing ideas and using 3-D printing to create business-busting fakes? Pretty fast. The U.S. already sees about $300 billion in stolen intellectual property each year. Gartner predicts that by 2018, globally, 3-D printing alone will account for $100 billion per year in stolen intellectual property.

It will become easy to steal an entire business, Plummer stressed — not just a product, but a whole business. “So 3-D printing becomes a risk point for us on intellectual property,” he said.  This means CEOs and CIOs, especially those in manufacturing and retail,  need to start thinking now about how they plan to protect intellectual property. The designs of bowls and decorative wall hangings were one example, but others include things like car parts and all the little things that make up the bigger things in products all around us.

It sounds pretty doom and gloom, but preparing now will go a long way later. And lest we get too pessimistic about how 3-D printing is just going to complicate lives, remember that it can save lives too. As Plummer summed it up: The threats are real, but so are the opportunities.

So how are you preparing for the 3-D printing revolution? Leave a comment and let us know.

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