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

Use cases will dictate 3D printing strategy

Should businesses invest in 3D printing technology? Only the use cases can answer that question, according to experts.

Businesses interested in adopting 3D printing will have a big decision to make out of the gate: whether to invest in the technology or rely on a third party for printing and, in some cases, modeling capabilities.

But when is insourcing more advantageous than outsourcing? "I always use a Stephen Covey quote to answer that question: 'Begin with the end in mind,'" said Pete Basiliere, a Gartner analyst.

CIOs, who will oversee the 3D printing infrastructure whether in-house or outsourced, and business users, the likely owners of the technology, should let the use cases drive the decision. And, experts added, restricting the 3D decision to either/or scenarios could be a misstep: In some cases, the best 3D printing strategy may be a combination of investment and reliance on a third-party service provider.

Focus on the use cases

Shawn DuBravac, chief economist and head of research at Consumer Technology AssociationShawn DuBravac

Three-dimensional printing, a type of additive manufacturing process using materials such as plastics, resins and metals to create 3D objects, is still a fledgling market, according to experts such as Shawn DuBravac, chief economist and the head of research at the Consumer Technology Association, based in Arlington, Va. He estimated 150,000 3D printers will be shipped worldwide this year. "That's not a big number," he said in November during his presentation at EmTech, an emerging technology conference hosted annually by the MIT Technology Review. "That number doubles, we think, by 2019."

Because the technology is so young, DuBravac and his colleagues see 3D printing as "less of a desktop computer and more of a service bureau technology," he said. The real test for the enterprise, however, depends on the business model.

"Any company that designs something physical will most likely have 3D printers," DuBravac said. That's especially true in cases of rapid prototyping, where 3D printing can provide significant efficiencies when bringing a product to market. But for businesses that aren't using the technology for that particular use case, the question of insourcing vs. outsourcing may be harder to answer.

Vinod Baya, director at PricewaterhouseCoopers' Center for Technology and InnovationVinod Baya

Interior designers, for example, will likely rely on 3D printing technology to customize the look and feel of a room, but will they need to own the technology to provide that service to their customers? According to Vinod Baya, director at PricewaterhouseCoopers' Center for Technology and Innovation, that will depend on production.

For enterprises that have the volume to warrant an investment and drive the returns, setting up an internal 3D printing shop makes sense. But for businesses that don't produce enough to offset the costs of investing in the emerging technology, which could include midmarket manufacturers, the money may be better spent elsewhere, he said.

The service bureau and beyond

While the cost of entry for a 3D printer may be cheap, if the business is going to rely on the technology for full-scale production purposes, the price tag can go up considerably, according to Baya. Today's 3D printers are limited by the materials and processes they use, and enterprises looking to leverage 3D printing technology to produce finished products will "need a bank of printers, with all of the different processes and procedures, so that you can make a complete product," he said.

Vendors are working on ways to change that, experimenting with equipment that can use multiple processes in sequence and print in multiple materials, but that technology is still in the lab, Baya said.

3D sugar printers

One of the more novel use cases for 3D printing technology is in the kitchen. Startups, such as the Sugar Lab, are using three-dimensional design software to create elaborate designs, which are then transformed into sugary cake toppers and fancy sugar cubes.

Even if businesses don't plan on bringing the technology in-house, they can still build a 3D printing strategy and access the technology through 3D printing service bureaus. "I think bureaus play a core role in the ecosystem because they're bringing the cost down for people to access these services," Baya said.

Matt Boyle, vice president of engineering at ShapewaysMatt Boyle

Shapeways Inc., a service bureau founded in 2007 and headquartered in New York, gives enterprises, such as Target Corp. and Google, access to 3D printing technology on demand. In 2014, Target opened a shop on Shapeways that enabled customers to select and purchase customizable, 3D-printed keychains, jewelry pendants and Christmas ornaments. Google collaborated with Shapeways for its Made with Code initiative -- helping girls translate zeros and ones into tangible objects.

"In the last couple of years, we've seen some interest from larger organizations, companies like Target, [that are trying] to figure out how we can help bring 3D printing into their product office," said Matt Boyle, vice president of engineering at Shapeways.

Hybrid 3D sourcing

Pete Basiliere, analyst at GartnerPete Basiliere

In some cases, a combination of insourcing and outsourcing 3D printing technology may be in order. Metal-printed objects are one example suited to this strategy, according to Gartner's Basiliere.

Businesses may want to invest in cheaper 3D printers for rapid prototyping in-house. Designers can then construct models out of, say, plastic, and quickly tweak and refine as necessary. Once the design has been perfected, they can outsource the design to a service bureau that specializes in metal printing. "Investing hundreds of thousands of dollars to over $1 million in a metal 3D printer may not be practical at this point in time," Basiliere said.

Even Shapeways, which advertises that it can print products in more than 50 different materials, uses a hybrid 3D printing strategy. Projects that call for nylon or plastics are printed on equipment Shapeways owns, but it also relies on service bureaus to handle overflow capacity and to print in specialized materials, such as precious metals.

Owning a full range of 3D printers and the expertise required to maintain the equipment would be expensive, but not out of the question for the startup. "It's just not the business direction we've chosen," Boyle said. "We're really interested in enabling consumers to create the product they want."

Having that kind of clarity around the use cases and how they enable the business is key for CIOs and for the enterprise, according to experts. "This will dictate what technology to use and whether you want to buy a printer from one of a number of companies or engage in the services of a service bureau," Basiliere said.

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