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

3D printing strategy a litmus test for CIO leadership

Your company may never need a 3D printing strategy, but it does need a CIO who can test, validate and scale emerging tech.

Our topic today is developing a 3D printing strategy. This begs the question why should an IT leader -- particularly one in a non-manufacturing vertical -- care about 3D printing? I could wax futuristic about how we will someday use 3D printers to produce our own processors and routers but that puts me out on a pretty long and tenuous limb.

Instead, think of an interest in forming a 3D printing strategy as an indicator of our willingness and ability to push the boundaries of innovation. I want to lead my organization in technology innovation. I worry that if I am not actively engaged in exploring the potential use and viability of new technologies (3D printing, embedded cognitive services, non-relational data structures, sensors and wearables, cloud microservices, et cetera) someone else in my IT group will, or, even worse, my business peers will pass me and my organization by while I am focused on finally delivering a reliable network. Somehow, someway I want to have at least one of my fingers on the pulse of the broad range of technology innovations happening today (not just IT improvements).

How can we keep at least one digit on this pulse? Permit me to count the ways:

Study up

First, every once in a while, read a paper or article from a technology futurist or attend a conference that features someone predicting the future. While their predictions might be a bit out there, I have always been able to glean something from their thoughts that reveal general trends. For example, I cannot imagine ever needing to access cognitive services in the cloud. But if cognitive services are available, on-demand in the cloud, what other cloud microservices will be available that I might want to know about and plan for?

Pony up

Second, put aside a bit of your budget and experiment with something that is on the bleeding edge but consumable. Ponder what you could do with a 3D printer. 3D printers no longer cost a ton of money (unless you are printing in titanium), so purchase one and play with it. Experiment how to connect it to one of your common services -- if nothing else, just to see what it takes to connect to new types of devices. Worst case for your 3D printing plans, you print some baubles that you hand out at your next team meeting. The important thing is that you start to learn how to experiment with new things because I think that is a capability that we all need.

Hack it

3D printers no longer cost a ton of money ... so purchase one and play with it. Experiment how to connect it to one of your common services -- if nothing else, just to see what it takes to connect to new types of devices. Worst case ... you print some baubles that you hand out at your next team meeting.

Third, allocate some of your team's time for innovation. We started doing "hack days" twice a year. One of these days is somewhat structured -- everyone spends a day on ideas that align to our existing business strategy. The other day is for any wild idea under the sun. For this one, we use a Shark Tank approach. In the morning, the teams form and brainstorm. Later, they present their ideas to the sharks. The sharks then decide which ones deserve development. At the end of the day, the sharks select the winners and we decide if and how the winning ideas will work into our plans.

At our December hack day, a team proposed using a non-relational data structure to help us look at our customers in a completely different way. The sharks approved development for the rest of the hack day and the team ended the day with a reasonable prototype. The prototype was compelling enough that it won the hack day prize. We let that team continue to work on the idea in between planned work. Three weeks later, the idea was developed enough that the team presented it to the executive team. The idea is now on our roadmap.

Fail fast, fail cheap

Fourth, expect the occasional colossal failure. Some of your ventures into new technologies, a hypothetical 3D printing strategy included, will not pan out. Others will not ever fit a need in your business. That is why I always take an iterative approach to these experiments. If I fail, I fail cheap and fast. If the technology or idea pans out, I scale the idea through various proof points. Along the way, we learn how to experiment, validate and scale. And as I look at how rapidly the technology future is changing, I realize that I need to master experimentation, validation and scaling.

About the author:
Niel Nickolaisen is CTO at O.C. Tanner Co., a human resources consulting company based in Salt Lake City that designs and implements employee recognition programs. A frequent writer and speaker on transforming IT and IT leadership, Nickolaisen holds an M.S. in engineering from MIT, as well as an MBA degree and a B.S. in physics from Utah State University. You can contact Nickolaisen at [email protected].

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