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3D printing technology: Strategic advice for CIOs

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CIOs who've dismissed 3D printing technology as a potential disruption to their businesses have given the technique short shrift, according to Pete Basiliere, an analyst at Gartner.

For industries like manufacturing, there is no question 3D printing will upend how work gets done. But even for those industries where use cases aren't obvious, 3D printing technology will likely have an effect, he said. Take financial services. "They invest in real estate. They buy and build big buildings," he said. "Now it's possible to 3D print a model of what that structure will look like on that plot of land."

How do CIOs build a 3D printing strategy to prepare their departments and organizations for yet another disruptive force? During his presentation at the recent Gartner Symposium/ITxpo in Orlando, Fla., Basiliere provided three tips on how to get there.

Invest in innovation

The first step is to encourage creative and innovative thinking -- not just within IT, but across the company. Basiliere suggested one way to unleash that creativity is to pull the trigger and invest.

Pete Basiliere, analyst, Gartner Inc.Pete Basiliere

For under $10,000, CIOs can purchase two types of 3D printers -- a material extrusion printer and a stereolithography printer (see below). At that price tag, they'll also get a handheld 3D scanner, an imaging device used to translate a three-dimensional object into a virtual design, and modeling software used to build a digital model from scratch. Because the cost is under $10,000, many CIOs with control over an approved capital budget won't have to endure an ROI analysis, Basiliere said.

Once purchased, the equipment should be set up in a dedicated space open to anyone. "Not only should you encourage the designers to use the innovation space, but other workers as well -- people on the assembly line, perhaps, people who have customer contacts," Basiliere said. "Let them have access to the innovation space because they're going to have ideas that could conceivably change your product or service quite dramatically."

Influence what is bought

3D printing is often referred to as a technology, but that's inaccurate. Instead, Basiliere referred to it as a technique made up of seven printing technologies. If CIOs are going to support the business' 3D printing endeavors, they'll need to be able to talk the talk. Basiliere suggested they understand how each of those seven technologies breaks down.

The seven printing technologies are as follows:

1. Material extrusion. Perhaps the best-known of the seven technologies, material extrusion operates much like a glue gun. Plastic filament is fed into a nozzle, which is warmed. The nozzle is moved vertically and horizontally, building the defined shape by superimposing one layer of polymer on top of another.

2. Stereolithography. It combines liquid polymer and a light source, generally a laser or a digital light processor, to solidify the polymer. "It's a very finely detailed piece, much more detailed than you can get with the material extrusion printers," Basiliere said.

3. Binder jetting. This method uses the same core technology as an inkjet printer. The build materials are a combination of powder and a liquid binder to construct the 3D object. "The current commercially available ink is actually an HP ink with a special binder added to it," Basiliere said.

4. Material jetting. Unlike the powder used in binder jetting, material jetting uses plastic to build the 3D object, which is then hardened by UV light. Like binder jetting, material jetting uses the same core technology as an inkjet printer.

5. Directed energy deposition. This is a technology related to metal printing. It uses a jetted metal powder, which is almost immediately bound together by an energy source, such as a laser.

6. Powder bed fusion. Plastic, metal, ceramic or glass powder is spread out in a thin layer and a light source, such as a laser or an electron beam, melts the powder in specific areas based on the design. The process is then repeated.

7. Sheet lamination. Sheets of metal or paper are either welded or bound together with an adhesive. There are currently only two providers of sheet lamination: Fabrisonic, which uses ultrasound technology to weld sheets of metal together and is based in Ohio, and Mcor Technologies, which uses paper and is based in Ireland. "With each layer, you scribe a shape and then break away the excess paper," Basiliere said.

An initial question organizations will likely have to answer is: What do we want to make? Beginning with the end in mind will help steer organizations to the type of technology they'll need and raise additional questions, Basiliere said. If the technology or the materials turn out to be too expensive, for example, businesses may want to include outsourcing in their 3D printing strategy, he suggested.

Prepare to support a complex infrastructure

If 3D printing technology is brought in-house, IT may not "own" the device, but it will still play a role. "We are no longer at a stage where 3D printers are standalone devices attached to standalone workstations," Basiliere said. "They are going to be on your network."

Even if 3D printing is outsourced, infrastructure complexity extends beyond network accessibility and uptime. 3D printing requires co-workers be able to collaborate, share files, and archive and retrieve files -- both within and outside of the organization. "One of the great potentials is to enable the military to print files closer to the forward action, enabling soldiers in the field or sailors aboard military ships to print parts," Basiliere said. It's a concept that can be extended to enterprises with scattered workforces across the country and around the world.

3D printing in brief

Gartner analyst Pete Basiliere defined 3D printing as "an additive technique that uses a device to create physical objects from digital models." That's additive as opposed to subtractive, meaning 3D printers build three-dimensional objects by stacking thin layers of material one on top of another instead of whittling down a block of material into a finished product.

Digital models are generally created with modeling software (often computer-aided design programs) or, in some cases, a 3D scanner, an imaging device used to translate the measurements of a physical object into a virtual design. In either case, modeling software then slices the virtual design into thin digital layers, essentially creating a set of instructions on how the object should be built.

Accessing files is one thing, but having the rights to the files is another. Intellectual property and patents for 3D printed objects is still unregulated territory. In some ways, that may not hamper experimental efforts. Hasbro Inc., for example, is enabling customers to select and print accessories for dolls and action figures by way of 3D printing technology, Basiliere said.

Still, businesses will have to consider the risks. "What happens when the person accessing that design is smart enough to infiltrate your network?" Basiliere asked. "We have to start thinking along those lines as well."

Let us know what you think of the story; email Nicole Laskowski, senior news writer, or find her on Twitter @TT_Nicole.

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