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Additive manufacturing delivers unexpected green benefits for CIOs

Additive manufacturing packs a green punch. With just-in-time inventory, CIOs can reduce transportation costs and facility expense.

Many CIOs talk about how their companies are "going green." These days, it's downright hip for people to showcase their organizations' environmentally friendly and new emerging technologies. But what is green IT? Green computing is generally agreed, as explained on WhatIs.com, to be the "environmentally responsible use of computers and related resources … as well as reduced resource consumption and proper disposal of electronic waste (e-waste)."

What if transportation costs and manufacturing waste on certain products could be not just reduced, but altogether eliminated? What if your home or office became a de facto manufacturing plant? Products would not have to be shipped to stores -- and you wouldn't have to drive to pick them up. It's this thought process that drives the green IT initiative, with CIOs using technology to reduce their impact upon the planet's resources, whether it's through the use of solar keyboards or dunking the data center into a vat of oil.

At its highest level, green IT allows companies to do more with less, building the future through information technology. And that's the idea behind new emerging technologies like additive manufacturing (aka 3D printing).

Potential CIO issues with additive manufacturing

As is the case with social media and other emerging new technologies, 3D printing is evolving faster than many institutions can handle. In other words, the successful adoption of additive manufacturing will in all likelihood not hinge upon the information technology behind it, but upon legal issues (read: patents).

The basic problem: Once object files (in essence, the "guts" behind the product) can be shared over the Internet, how does a CIO ensure that intellectual property rights are protected? Think of what happen to the music industry. One can easily envision a BitTorrent scenario in which just-in-time inventory and products can be illegally created without rightfully compensating the owners of those patents.

In addition to that headache, without adequate intellectual property protection, expect resistance from many widget makers. -- P.S.

Additive manufacturing, as defined by Wikipedia and by many other sources, is "a process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file. 3D printing is achieved using additive processes, where an object is created by laying down successive layers of material. 3D printing is considered distinct from traditional machining techniques (subtractive processes) which mostly rely on the removal of material by drilling, cutting, etc."

Just-in-time inventory through additive manufacturing

While not entirely monolithic, manufacturing methods tend to remain fairly constant over time. Sure, innovations like just-in-time inventory come along once in a while, but true revolutions are few and far between. That's what makes computer-aided engineering like 3D printing so exciting for CIOs.

I recently watched a demo of a 3D printer that spit out an actual, playable guitar. I had two reactions. First, wow! After the initial shock wore off, I wondered, "How is that even possible?" It turns out that "the process is a little like inkjet printing, but instead of ink squirting out of the print head, successive layers of plastic or metal powder are deposited according to the CAD file's instructions," Wikipedia again explains.

Now, let's not get ahead of ourselves -- we won't be "printing" TVs or even sofas anytime soon. However, if you think that your office printers today will resemble your printers in 20 years, you're mistaken. As the Semantic Web continues to approach, expect game-changing technologies to disrupt existing business models.

In 1986, Melvin Kranzberg wrote, "Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral." Those words were true then, they're true now, and they'll be true decades from now. 3D printing will doubtless cause pain for existing powers that be, but many others will benefit.

Phil SimonPhil Simon

About the author
Phil Simon is the author of four management books, including the award-winning The Age of the Platform. A recognized technology expert and speaker, Simon advises companies on how to optimize their use of technology. His contributions have been featured on NBC, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, Technorati.com, ABC News, the New York Times and many other tech sites. Contact him at phil@philsimonsystems.com or editor@searchcio-midmarket.com

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