This content is part of the Essential Guide: Enterprise 3D printing tutorial: CIO challenges and advice

How CIOs can use 3D printing technology to their advantage

3D printing technology is having a moment. CIOs should use it as an opportunity to rebrand the IT group as a business innovation partner.

CIOs may want to label 3D printing -- a type of additive manufacturing that constructs layers of plastic, resin or metal into three-dimensional objects -- a design or a product development tool and, therefore, technology that falls outside the senior IT  manager's purview.

But, according to experts, the perspective is short-sighted. If 3D printing technology is brought into the enterprise, it will connect to the network, suck up bandwidth, produce data that needs to be collected and secured, and have an impact on file retrieval. If 3D printing is outsourced, the business will need to shuttle large files between the enterprise and 3D printing service bureaus -- files that contain sensitive intellectual property that will need to be protected.

Any item on the above list is reason enough for the CIO and the IT organization to make a case for their involvement in 3D printing. But another? Proactively introducing or supporting 3D printing technology in the enterprise could help CIOs establish IT as a business innovation partner, a shift many IT experts argue is necessary as companies increasingly rely on technology to perform just about any business function.

Taking 3D printing out for an enterprise spin, however, won't be easy. While the business headlines suggest that 3D printing tools are consumer-ready -- Mattel recently announced it will sell a 3D printing toy maker for kids this fall -- experts caution that the enterprise 3D vendor market is immature. The business applications are still largely confined to manufacturing companies and the technology itself -- for all the advances made since its introduction 30 years ago -- is not standardized.

Another issue for CIOs? Can they get in on business technology conversations early enough to earn the business' trust and prove their department's worth?

Fragmented market

The first hurdle CIOs and their companies will face is the immaturity of the technology, itself. Experts describe the vendor market as evolving but still nascent and fragmented -- and not changing any time soon.

Sophia VargasSophia Vargas

"There is no dominant player -- there is no dominant printer -- that can solve all of your needs," said Sophia Vargas, a Forrester Research analyst who has been watching the 3D printing market for two years.

In fact, to date, experts said the most popular use case for 3D printing technology is still rapid prototyping, an iterative process of building models that can be quickly tweaked. One of the reasons for the limitation is that printers can often print products in one type of material -- say a certain type of plastic or ceramic -- but not in multiple types of materials. Yet, as Vinod Baya, director at PricewaterhouseCoopers' Center for Technology and Innovation, said, "Most products we use aren't made with one material."

Vinod BayaVinod Baya

He said the technology will need to overcome three challenges if it wants to go from a "prototyping phase" to a "production phase":

  1. Performance. Baya said 3D printers need to get faster, more accurate and more consistent. "Right now, in some cases, you print a product on one printer, and if you print the same product on another printer, they could be a bit different," he said.
  2. Printing in multiple materials. Machines that can 3D print in multiple materials are beginning to show up on the market, but they're still young. And while they can print in multiple types of resin, for example, they still can't print in a diverse set of materials, say metals and plastics.
  3. Printing complete systems. Printers that can, for example, print a hearing aid device complete with the plastic ear piece, the circuitry and the battery all in a single go will be the market's "biggest game changer," Baya said. But that technology has not yet hit the market and, when asked to put a number on it, he predicted it's at least five years out. 

Using the moment to IT's advantage

Still, 3D printing is having a moment, experts stressed. Look no further than GE for proof: This year, the company's new CFM LEAP engines will include the first 3D-printed parts in an aircraft engine platform -- 19 fuel nozzles that couldn't have been constructed otherwise, according to a press release.

If CIOs are smart, they'll leverage this hot -- and quickly evolving -- technology to burnish their IT department's standing as a trusted innovation partner. That's especially the case for CIOs working in verticals like retail, medical device manufacturing, industrial manufacturing, education, fashion, architecture and product design, Forrester's Vargas said. These are industries either primed to begin experimenting with 3D printing technology or are already doing so, which means the next step will be to extend the technology to other members of the enterprise, posing integration and interoperability questions for the IT department.

Pete BasilierePete Basiliere

The good news? Introducing the enterprise to 3D printing technology doesn't have to cost much. Pete Basiliere, Gartner analyst, said CIOs can set up a 3D printing innovation lab (what he called a "maker's space") for as little as $10,000. Experimenting with 3D printing gives CIOs an opportunity to be a digital thought leader to the business, said Graham Waller, a Gartner analyst and co-author of the new book Digital to the Core.

Up next: 4D printing

Skylar Tibbits, the director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Self-Assembly Lab, has teamed up with Stratasys and Autodesk in an attempt to add a fourth dimension to 3D printing -- time. Three-dimensional objects are printed with materials that react to specific environmental stimulus -- say heat or moisture -- that can trigger self-assembly or a shape-shifting transformation in the product, itself. "You can think of it as the field of smart materials," Tibbits said at EmTech, an emerging technology conference hosted by MIT Technology Review.

"The CIO can often be in a position of being the provocateur or the inspiration," he said, "because often, they've got a purview to see across the business. This is the skill that they need to bring -- to see across the core business vision, mission, strategy as well as the technology -- and then combine those things so that they can distill out what is relevant and material from a strategy side."

Graham WallerGraham Waller

But that requires CIOs get in on emerging technology conversations with the business early, according to experts. For senior IT managers who are already stretched thin maintaining legacy systems, fighting uptime fires, and keeping costs in line, finding the time to build relationships with the business can be difficult.

"We can never take our eye off the ball," Waller said. "The trap for the CIO is that they spend all of their personal time doing that and then they don't have any time to step up and play the more strategic role."

Digital CIO

One piece of advice from Waller? Delegate. He advised CIOs consider establishing an operational CIO role to oversee the day-to-day operational IT duties. That way, CIOs could ensure operational service remains excellent while carving out time to think about and talk about emerging technology initiatives with the business, he said.

The payoff in restructuring the IT department to include an operational CIO role isn't 3D printing, per se. Instead, it's a strategic move that could help CIOs reframe how the business looks at IT and how the C-suite regards the role of the CIO.

"This is very deep technology and digital-enabled change," Waller said. "Often a traditional business leader, whether that's a CEO or any other role in the C-suite, and also boards of directors, can have blind spots as to what is possible. So there's a tremendous opportunity for CIOs to play a role there."

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