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Three-dimensional printing presents an opportunity for CIOs to get behind an emerging technology that experts believe could have a transformative effect on how work gets done. Along with the opportunity come 3D printing challenges that are both unique to the technology and typical of the broader digital business trend.
Implementing 3D printing, an additive manufacturing process to transform digital models into three-dimensional objects, will pose new security and data management challenges. Moreover, for 3D printing to be successful in the enterprise, CIOs will have to ensure their IT departments can keep pace with the business by adopting -- if they haven't already -- Agile and continuous delivery practices.
3D security challenge: Counterfeits
Businesses that choose to outsource 3D printing to service bureaus will be shuttling files beyond the enterprise's firewall. One of the 3D printing challenges CIOs will encounter is ensuring the intellectual property contained within those files remains secure.
While protecting sensitive IP is nothing new for CIOs, 3D printing presents a new wrinkle, according to Sophia Vargas, an analyst at Forrester Research.
"If your shop has a product in digital form, [chances are] you're extending access to an end consumer and not just to people within your partner or employer spectrum," Vargas said. Because 3D printing technology is also a consumer technology, customers may expect an option to print parts from, say, Staples on their home 3D printers. CIOs will have to ensure security follows files from the enterprise to a B2B partner to a consumer's network.
If files are hacked, counterfeiting can result in lost revenue. And if the counterfeited product breaks down in some way, it could result in reputational and even legal damage for the business. "We're not seeing it yet, but it could happen where someone 3D prints a counterfeit good that then has a catastrophic failure," said Pete Basiliere, a Gartner analyst.
Protecting the enterprise from 3D printing counterfeiters will likely require the combined efforts of IT, engineering and legal counsel, as they consider ways to either mark products produced internally or to concoct a blend of materials -- a proprietary mix of metals, for example -- unique to the organization, according to Basiliere.
3D data challenge: Massive data sets
If businesses decide to set up an internal 3D printing shop, one of the biggest 3D printing challenges CIOs will face is a data bottleneck, according to Vinod Baya, director of PricewaterhouseCoopers' Center for Technology and Innovation.
When 3D printers construct an object, they do so by adding one layer of material on top of the next. Many printers are equipped with sensors that can track temperature, moisture, pressure and any other characteristic the business deems worth measuring for every layer of material used.
"All of that data is available to do things like diagnostics -- Is the product going to meet specifications? -- which, ultimately, means you'd have to do less quality testing," Baya said. Much of the data generated is structured data (although some printers can take photos during construction to compare to the original model), but the volume of data produced is immense and has to be dealt with immediately if it's going to be useful to the business.
"All of the big data techniques CIOs are learning from social or marketing or other spheres of influence are equally applicable here because the volumes of data need to be processed in real time, and the architecture needs to support that," he said.
If they're going to take on 3D printing, CIOs may want to consider the data lake as a data management strategy. Not only will 3D printing data need to be combined with data from other systems and so cannot be siloed, it may help to answer questions the business hasn't yet considered, which means it will need to be collected and stored. The data lake, which acts as a landing ground for raw data, enables businesses to keep the massive volume of data from 3D printers for analysis.
"Past practices were all about, 'If you don't need this data for the production system right away, we'll throw it out,'" Baya said. "But it's getting cheaper and cheaper to store the data. Obviously, you need to invest in the right kind of architecture to be able to do that."
3D culture challenge: Continuous delivery
"The biggest lesson learned? Always ship code," said Matt Boyle, vice president of engineering, which doubles as the company's IT department. Delivering code in a steady stream -- one of the tenets of continuous delivery -- enables the team to roll out and test new features, a better strategy then tossing code in a file where it could wither and die, he said.
"A corollary to that? When you release something, make sure you know what needle you're trying to move and make sure you can measure whether or not you're moving it," Boyle added.
Boyle said his team pushes new code to the Shapeways site 20 times a day, on average. That kind of continuous delivery can't happen without product development, a team he described as "the yin to our yang when it comes to how we develop software and bring features to life." Along with manufacturing, the three teams are intermixed within the same physical space, which Boyle said encourages collaboration.
Experts agreed practices such as continuous delivery, Agile and DevOps, the tying of a company's development and operations teams closer together, are necessary not just for 3D printing projects, but for IT's role in digital business in general. Digital processes such as 3D printing compress the work cycle, giving the business an added velocity.
"CIOs will have to keep pace," PricewaterhouseCoopers' Baya said. "Their systems will have to change with the velocity of the business." Otherwise, CIOs risk the business moving on without them.
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