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

A popular notion in strategic-planning circles is "core competency," consultant-speak for "what the company is good at." Paying attention to what you're good at is sensible enough. After all, when competing for business, selling something you're good at making is a whole lot easier than selling something you're just figuring out.

Take core competency too far, however, and you'll find yourself "fighting the last war" because that's the war you know how to fight, even though the war you know how to fight is trench warfare while your competitors have figured out the tank.

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Regular readers of Advice Line will recall an argument made here many times in one form or another, namely that in business, mass production is the last war. The next business war will be based on "craft production" -- your company's ability to deliver customized, feature-rich products and services. That's the coming conflict: to deliver what, in my consulting company at least, we call "excellence," as opposed to a few million identical, low-unit-cost items with a low defect rate (what "quality" means).

Now the Economist has joined in, adding a nifty wrinkle to the conversation: so-called 3D printing and its logical consequences.

The promise of 3D printing

In case you missed it, 3D printers are devices that output solid objects in response to information sent by a computer in very much the same way 2D printers output formatted pages. The connection is, I trust, clear: 3D printers can create a stream of unique, tailored objects just as 2D printers can create a stream of unique, tailored pages.

The potential impact goes far beyond how companies manufacture objects, too. As 3D printers drop in price and become more widespread, the decision of which objects to manufacture will become more interesting as well. In many instances, "manufacturing" will stop with the data stream companies send to their customers' 3D printer; customers will use this data and their 3D printers to manufacture the objects themselves.

At least, for simple products -- ones that require no more assembly than you might expect for products available at Ikea. For more complex products, like automobiles, manufacturers will still put them together, I imagine, although the burden of manufacturing some of the parts might shift.

How 3D printing will change craft production

3D printing will change some, but not all, of the fundamental trade-offs that separate mass production from craft production: Mass production will still have high fixed and low incremental costs; craft production will still have low fixed costs, but -- and this is a big change -- 3D-printing-enabled craft production will have much lower incremental costs than craft production does now. They'll be lower because 3D printing requires no human intervention once the design is complete; they'll be lower still because the cost of distribution will be trivial -- shipping and handling will consist of a download.

Mass production will still have longer cycle times and higher throughput than craft production, just as high-speed offset presses have longer cycle times but higher throughput than your average office copier. No change there.

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