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3D printing technology payoff beyond imagination

Skeptical about all the hype around 3D printing technology? We ain't seen nothin' yet, says SearchCIO columnist Harvey Koeppel.

The buzz about 3D printing comes with the usual pontification that occurs every time a new technology passes the novelty stage into the realm where real money can be made. Canalys, a market research firm, predicts the global market for 3D printers and services will grow from $2.5 billion in 2013 to $16.2 billion in 2018, a compound annual growth rate of 45.7%.

Thirty-two years after Charles Hull created the first functional 3D printer, pundits are hailing the "new" technology as everything from disruptive innovation to the next Industrial Revolution. But you won't find me badmouthing the Johnny-come-lately labels. Personally, I believe the current descriptions vastly underestimate the potential impact of 3D printing technology and its inevitable derivative technologies.

Imagine if, around 3500 BC, someone applied these labels to the invention of the wheel? In fact, the first wheels were used in the manufacture of pottery, i.e. the potter's wheel. It was 300 years later that wheels were affixed to a box with handles to make the first cart, and 1,600 years after that when the Egyptians streamlined the sluggish cart into a military grade chariot that helped transform them into one of the most formidable armies in the ancient world. What potter would have possibly imagined world domination?

Perhaps the problem is with the name. What does 3D printing mean anyway? Do we need to wear special glasses to see the output? Maybe we need marketing people to come up with a better name; something catchy like "V2PR" (Virtual to Physical Replication).

Modern day uses for this new (old) technology

The current applications of 3D printing technology fall into categories that span a diversity of industries and a wide range of the innovation spectrum: everything from achieving mundane operational efficiencies to some rather remarkable medical and scientific breakthroughs. (Fortunately none of them quite yet speaks directly to world domination, the operative word being yet.) To put things into perspective, here are a few industry examples.

Aerospace. NASA designed and built its new Space Exploration Vehicle (ground-based rover) utilizing 70 parts that were designed digitally and 3D printed. Design and build times were substantially reduced and the materials utilized were much more durable than conventionally sourced equivalents. The process also allowed for much earlier detection and resolution of design problems, again resulting in savings of time, cost and, in this case, potentially human lives.

Architecture. Architects typically build scale models of rooms, buildings or entire developments as part of the design and approval process. Using 3D printing technology, one firm shortened the model building timeframe and reduced the number of people involved from two months utilizing two fulltime staff to a few hours utilizing one person. The resultant model was 100% accurate when compared to the digital design.

Commercial manufacturing. Manufacturers across almost every major industry, e.g. automotive, consumer products, electronics, etc., are either already utilizing or planning to utilize 3D printing in some fashion. Significant savings are being realized in product/component design time and cost when done digitally, compared with traditional CNC (computer numerical control) routing technologies that are typically used to mill models and prototypes, much of which requires highly skilled manual tooling. Overall uses of 3D printing technology in manufacturing can be thought of as follows:

  • Rapid prototyping for components and assemblies for internal and external use, and for review and final approval.
  • Fabrication of fixtures, jigs, and end-of-arm tooling for part placement and extraction arms.
  • Multiple parts previously assembled by machines or by hand are 3D printed in completed sub-assemblies.
  • Production parts can be printed in low volumes. Due mainly to the speed of current 3D printing technologies, this limitation will become less significant as printing speeds increase over time.
  • Consumers can 3D print their own products and bypass the store or online buying process entirely. Lower print speed is much less of an issue when you only need one (compared with 100,000) of something.

In many ways, 3D printing brings to commercial manufacturing what Agile methodologies bring to the IT application development process. Prototypes can be created, evaluated, modified, and reconstructed; and fully integrated products can be brought to market in significantly less time and cost with fewer resources. Shorter time to value, less expensive and higher quality products are predictable outcomes. It is not difficult to imagine how the manufacturing supply chain as we know it today will be, over time, fundamentally changed forever.

Medicine and life sciences take 3D to heart

Medicine & Life Sciences. The easiest way to understand how 3D printing is transforming the fields of medicine and life sciences is to look at a list of actual applications of the technology from publication 3D Printing Industry. In case you are not up to date on your knowledge of man-made body parts, here are some applications to consider:

  • Tissues with blood vessels. Jennifer Lewis, a researcher at Harvard University, has designed a custom 3D printer to create tissue containing skin cells that are interlaced with artificial blood vessels.
  • Low-cost prosthetics. A research team from the University of Toronto is producing inexpensive and easy to customize prosthetic sockets for patients in Uganda. "Not Impossible Labs" in Venice, Calif. is creating easy-to-print, patient-specific limbs for people in Sudan.
  • Pharmaceuticals. Researchers at the Louisiana Technical University have printed biocompatible, biodegradable devices for delivering bone cancer medicines. Lee Cronin, a chemist at the University of Glasgow, is experimenting with a 3D printer capable of creating chemical compounds at the molecular level that ultimately would allow patients to download their prescription blueprint and print their medications at home.
  • Patient-specific sensors. Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis have printed electronic sensors on silicon sheets that can be attached to the human heart to measure oxygenation, heart strain and temperature. They are working on extending the sensor technology to detect blocked arteries.
  • Medical models. Researchers are creating 3D printed models based upon CT and MRI scans to make patient-specific implants and to better understand how tumors grow and spread.  Such models additionally allow doctors to better prepare for surgeries and significantly reduce procedure times.
  • Bone. Professor Susmita Bose of Washington State University customized a 3D printer to create an artificial bone grafting material that will also promote and eventually be replaced by natural bone growth.
  • Heart valve. Dr. Jonathan Butcher at Cornell University has printed a functioning heart valve that he plans to start testing on sheep.
  • Ear and spinal cartilage. Researchers at Cornell have created molds of ear tissue from 3D patient photos that are filled with bovine cartilage cells to form living ear tissue that is reattached to the patient. They have also 3D printed replacement discs to treat major spinal column injuries.
  • Cranium replacement. Surgeons at the University Medical Center in Utrecht, Netherlands replaced the top portion of a woman's skull with a precisely fitted implant that was 3D printed from plastic. Titanium has also been used for skull fragment replacement in Slovakia and China.
  • Synthetic skin. James Yoo, M.D., at the Wake Forest School of Medicine has customized a 3D printer that can print skin straight onto wounds of burn victims based upon a scan of the damaged tissue. The process is accurate down to the number of layers of skin originally damaged and in need of replacement.
  • Organs. Organovo has announced the launch of bio-printed liver cells. For the moment, the cells only live for 40 days and are mainly used for testing new drugs. Executives predict that within the next 10 years they will be printing fully functional livers, hearts and kidneys.

12-step CIO program for 3D

For CIOs, the already existing and new opportunities arising daily from 3D printing technology are immense if not daunting. Here are some ways in which we, as IT executives, can help to steer the course and maximize our influence on the outcomes that today we can only imagine.

  1. If you are not already familiar with the basic concepts and principles of 3D printing, read a book, take a course, talk to colleagues and acquaint yourself with the science involved and products available.
  1. Familiar or not, continue to monitor new developments in 3D printing technology -- this stuff changes faster than we do.
  1. If you already have an innovation function within your enterprise (business or IT), ensure that 3D printing is one of the disciplines being tested and developed. If you don't have an innovation function within your enterprise, create one.
  1. Hire and train the best and the brightest 3D printing talent that you can find and afford.
  1. As with all new technologies, ensure that products and services that you build with 3D printing have commercial viability, i.e. reasonable economic return on investments.
  1. Be transparent with your internal and external stakeholders. Proper messaging in this area is critical and if managed well can be a competitive differentiator.
  1. 3D printers and associated scanners and related peripherals will likely be connected to your network. As with any connected device, ensure that you and your team are fully aware of the associated cyber risks and implement appropriate network protections.
  1. 3D printer applications will undoubtedly require and/or generate new sources and types of data that must be evaluated and appropriately catalogued and integrated within your enterprise and departmental data management policies, procedures and methodologies. Data privacy and information security are of particular concern when regulated information, such as personally identifiable information (PII) or health data, is involved.
  1. 3D printer applications will create new intellectual property (IP) for many companies, in the form of digital scans, models, prototypes, etc., or companies may be using IP generated by others. CIOs should work with their legal and compliance teams to ensure that their IP rights are protected and that they are not infringing upon privately owned patents, copyrights, licenses, etc.
  1. Evaluate potential moments and points of potential supply chain disruption either within your enterprise or coming from an external partner or supplier. The more you can anticipate, the better you can plan for what will eventually become a significant operational challenge.
  1. Where the development and deployment of any technologies may displace human workers, ensure that you have a good HR strategy and plan. Full communication and re-training of affected staff go a long way towards minimizing resistance (sometimes even sabotage) and towards ultimate acceptance. 
  1. Spend quality time with your executive team, C-suite peers and your staff to reflect upon potential ethical or moral implications of new 3D printer-based products or services. This is especially important for those involved with medical or public infrastructure applications where lives may literally be at stake and/or significant economic or social disruptions could occur when unintended consequences happen; you know that this one is a "when" not an "if."

End note: 3D and self-replication

Given the inevitable development and evolution of 3D printing and related technologies, it is worth pondering the following scenario:

What do you think would happen if, when a new 3D printer is taken out of its box and powered up for the first time, instead of printing the typical test page (or 3D object) to verify that all is working properly, the first thing that it prints is a 3D printer? Now add body parts.

I will leave the rest to your imagination.

Let me know what you think. Post a comment or drop me a note at [email protected]. Discuss, debate or even argue -- let's continue the conversation.

About the author:
Harvey R. Koeppel is the president of Pictographics Inc., a management and technology advisory and consulting services firm. He is also vice chairman of the World BPO/ITO Forum. From May 2004 through June 2007, Koeppel served as the CIO and senior vice president of Citigroup's Global Consumer Group.

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