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3D printing is IT's next big challenge

3D printing is IT's next big challenge

Mmany companies will move to a decentralised manufacturing model as 3D printing takes hold.

Is your enterprise evaluating 3D printing? If so, make sure IT is involved in the investigation, even if it's in the preliminary stages. You can't afford to sit this out until a move to 3D starts to look real.

3D printing is already big, and it's getting bigger. According to the Wohlers Report, worldwide spending on products and services related to 3D printing hit $2.2 billion in 2012, and that figure is predicted to rise to nearly $6 billion in 2017. Rapidly evolving 3D printing technology is changing the way a surprising variety of products are produced. Today, Nike prints football cleats, Choc Creator prints chocolates and Continuum Fashion prints clothing.

General Electric hopes to print fuel nozzles for its new Leap jet engine. Current 3D technology can create a single-piece nozzle that is stronger and lighter than the existing nozzle, which is assembled from 20 separate pieces. Unfortunately, today's printers are too expensive (and slow) for GE's purposes. But because the technology is evolving so rapidly, the company believes that it could be cost-effective to print nozzles in two or three years.

In addition, GE plans to print spare parts in field locations around the world, reducing transportation and storage costs. Locally printed parts will significantly reduce delivery times and repair downtime, particularly for breakdowns that occur in remote areas.

In fact, many companies will move to a decentralised manufacturing model as 3D printing takes hold. Central operations will be reserved for making large or complex items.

Another appeal of 3D printers is that they offer broad technical benefits. They allow specification updates to be incorporated as soon as they're approved. There's no need to wait for a factory to be retooled to build the most up-to-date components. In addition, 3D printers make it possible to create very complex shapes that can be represented mathematically but can't be manufactured with conventional approaches.

But business executives are most likely to be swayed by the cost savings that come with 3D printing. As the technology matures, it will be possible to print complex, multipiece parts as single components, and the need to assemble and test multiple pieces will decrease. Factory resets will become quicker and easier; instead of costly production-line retooling, you'll merely load a new design into the printer. Factory staff will primarily focus on monitoring printers. Though centralized manufacturing in large plants has long been a reliable way to keep costs down, that model will become uncompetitive as it runs up against higher logistics costs and increased customer expectations for rapid product delivery.

So where does IT come in? The business benefits of 3D printing will be matched by some serious IT challenges. The folks in manufacturing, R&D and marketing who are most interested in 3D printing don't know much about evaluating how changes to day-to-day operations affect underlying IT systems. Most transactional systems will require major overhauls to support process changes in manufacturing and the supply chain. Many enterprises will also need to upgrade their IT infrastructures to support 3D printers. IT management must proactively insert IT's concerns about technology and costs into 3D printing conversations.

If you're in IT leadership, come to grips with the fact that 3D printing will be here sooner than you think. It will be your next big IT challenge.

Bart Perkins is managing partner at Louisville, Ky.-based Leverage Partners, which helps organizations invest well in IT. Contact him at BartPerkins@LeveragePartners.com.

Read more about hardware in Computerworld's Hardware Topic Center.

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