Among the coolest technologies in IT and telecommunications – alongside augmented reality and virtual reality – is 3D printing.
The challenge of discussing 3D printing is a bit ironic: It is hard to resist the temptation to focus on the all the coolness to consider some less startling but very important issues. One of these is how 3D printing is going to affect the rest of the organization in general, and IT in particular.
The effect will be indirect. For instance, IT of course is deeply embedded in the manufacturing cycles. These cycles will shrink in the era of 3D printing. That will affect IT and how it does its job. At the same time, the shorter cycles will affect the entire software development process.
Network World’s Patrick Nelson reported on Local Motors, which is creating the LM3D Swim, the first 3D printed car. It will be commercially available next spring. Speaking at the Connected Car Expo last week in Los Angeles, Chief Strategy Officer Justin Fishkin said that automobile development cycles can be as long as three years. That time is cut drastically in the 3D realm. The software elements of the overall project can be updated on a weekly basis.
The most interesting, and perhaps challenging, element to support systems such as IT is that in such a process customers can actually participate in the manufacture of their vehicles. Microfactories will be in Phoenix, Las Vegas and Knoxville, Tennessee.
3D printing will also affect the supply chain. Joe Cannata, the certification director for Kinaxis, highlights a number of ways in which the new technique will affect how things are manufactured. Various examples show that 3D printing can reduce physical distance as a gating factor in manufacturing goods. It also can wring a tremendous amount of waste from the process because it creates a closer connection between the amount of raw materials used and the amount actually needed.
Smart companies recognize that the supply chain has been changed forever:
TNT Express, FedEx and Amazon are looking at investing in mobile 3D printing trucks, which could come to a site and start “manufacturing” on demand. This not only brings the manufacturing closer to home, it reduces the transportation costs and also shrinks the length of the supply chain. Local manufacturing, or on-demand, means creating only what is needed, as opposed to stocking materials and keeping an inventory, all of which need to be managed to optimize cost. Third party printing companies can now become value-added distributors and manufacturers.
All of this affects the job that IT does in supporting the organization.
Last spring, Trucking Info took a look at how 3D printing will affect trucking. After the obligatory examples of cool things that can be done – it seems to be impossible to write anything about 3D printing without eye-opening examples -- Deborah Lockridge cites findings from a PricewaterhouseCoopers-related analytics organization that point to significant change in how the industry works:
When Strategy& looked at nearly two dozen industry sectors, it found that as much as 41% of the air cargo business and 37% of the ocean container business is at risk because of 3D printing. Roughly a quarter of the trucking freight business is also vulnerable, due to the potential decline in goods that start as air cargo or as containers on ships and ultimately need some form of overland transport.
The bottom line is very clear: 3D printing will be transformative to how companies operate. It will change what they do (a 3D car will be different from a traditionally produced car, not just manufactured more quickly), how they do it, and the way in which companies involved interact. IT, telecommunications and other support elements of each organization need to start getting ready.
Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.