3D printing: A litmus test for IT leadership

Next-generation IT is all about custom-tailored products and services. What you know about 3D printing says a lot about whether your organization will get there

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Something else that will change: Without 3D printing, craft production has lower quality (more defects) than mass production for all the obvious reasons. With 3D printing, craft production will still have lower quality than mass production in that design flaws will still be more likely. The investment needed to track down design defects is a lot lower when you're spreading it over a few million items than when you're spreading it over just one unique one. But craft production will have no more manufacturing defects than mass production -- maybe fewer because items created on 3D printers will have few or no assembly steps in which mistakes can occur.

Of course, the fundamental difference, the point of craft production, won't change at all. It will still deliver excellence, just as it has since Rembrandt's day. But there's a major distinction: When Rembrandt painted one of his masterpieces, it was the only one of its kind. With 3D printing, buying an item once and having as many to use or resell as you like will be no more difficult than pirating a digital movie.

If you're interested in the macroeconomic impact of all this, read the feature in the Economist. Or if you'd like a more entertaining (although somewhat dated in style) account, get a copy of George O. Smith's 1950s-vintage "Complete Venus Equilateral," which described a similar sort of technology and predicted that it would cause economic collapse, followed by gradual development of a service economy to replace the manufacturing economy it devastated.

Be the company's early warning system for innovations

I don't do macroeconomics here in Advice Line (I'm not qualified). Instead, let's look at the impact on IT organizations, not at some fuzzy date in the indefinite future, but right now and over the next couple of years.

Start with this question: Does your company have customers for whom you make custom-tailored products? If not, does it have customers who would prefer custom-tailored products to the ones they currently buy from you? Or, turning it around, do you have suppliers who should be replacing off-the-shelf components to your company with custom-tailored alternatives? If the answer to any of this is yes and this is this the first you're hearing about 3D printing, there's a problem: Either IT management doesn't understand that they need to provide technology leadership to the company, or they haven't figured out how to go about it.

Yes, technology leadership, one of IT's most important jobs is to serve as the company's early warning system for innovations in and around information technology that could represent threats or opportunities to the company's competitive situation. 3D printing certainly could qualify.

One more question: Has anyone from the design or manufacturing departments approached IT to ask for advice on this subject or asked for support in implementing 3D printing? Or, for that matter, supply chain? If so, the final question to ask is, how did IT respond?

I sure hope the answer was, "You bet!" I sure hope it wasn't, "This doesn't conform to our standards." Or, even worse, "This isn't our job."

This story, "3D printing: A litmus test for IT leadership," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bob Lewis' Advice Line blog on InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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