by Frank Wammes

3D printing will disrupt more than just your supply chain

Mar 15, 2017
3D PrintersComputers and PeripheralsIT Strategy

3D printing isn't just for specialized industries like healthcare. The technology has great potential and could enable us to create new customer experiences that have not been possible before

I’m currently leg-up, man-down in an Austrian hotel, planning my revenge on the malicious ski lift that tore the ligament in my knee to pieces. Besides planning revenge, I’m both awed at my Austrian doctor’s ability to use one ligament of my leg to replace the one that’s torn up, and disappointed that they haven’t given me a 3D-printed ligament with built-in fitness tracking capabilities. This was my opportunity to become a cyborg — and I’ve missed it.

All of this got me thinking about 3D printing. How will it affect the future, both on a societal level and on the level of your organization? Let me tell you — no matter what industry you’re in — the impact is going to be huge. Sure, we know all about the logistical advantages of 3D printing. But once we get down to printing with all sorts of materials — not just plastics — 3D printing will really go through the roof. Every industry will be majorly impacted.

Let’s talk about some examples: Personalization will become real personalization and it will revolutionize (e-)commerce. Currently, most e-commerce companies practice a form of mass personalization, or better said — faux personalization. Sure, you can have your fridge door in blue or red or black or taupe, or engraved with your initials, date of birth or favorite Britney Spears lyrics — but that’s not real personalization. That’s just tweaking of (nonessential) product features. Current supply chains hinder true personalization because keeping stock for years and years greatly reduces the level of flexibility we can allow consumer products to have. With 3D printing, there’s no need for stock-keeping anymore. At least not to the level we currently need.   

But this requires different capabilities from your application landscape. Your enterprise content management environment, where perhaps the unique CAD design is stored, needs to be connected to a customer-relationship management (CRM) system that supports what you have ordered. Not just the order details of the product, but the very engineering of it. The first wave of CRM was all about capturing transactions. The current wave is about capturing interactions. Will the third wave then finally be about collaboration and design? Current systems can’t handle that yet, but my prediction is we’ll see developments in this space very soon.

This revolution of e-commerce will in essence redesign the relationship with your customer. With 3D printing, manufacturing of one-offs (prototypes) becomes a lot cheaper. As a real estate addict, I can’t help but watch the episodes of Million Dollar Listing — New York every Sunday morning in bed. But I almost immediately fall out of bed when I hear that a model of an apartment complex can cost up to $500,000. A model. Of an apartment complex. $500K. With 3D printing, you can bring that down to roughly $30K, and that means many, many more possibilities for reiteration — together with your client. Can you imagine that we can start doing this with all different kinds of goods where customers want to have their individual adjustments? That can lead to a top-line advantage that will certainly start surfacing in the next couple of years, in many, many industries.

But there’s more. 3D printing will not just disrupt e-commerce, it may in fact disrupt one of the most significant challenges we face as a species: food shortages. There’s a whole wealth of food available that’s incredibly rich in protein that we’re just not tapping into. Why? Because the idea is that it doesn’t taste good. I’m talking about insects here, and if you grew up in Western society, you’re probably pulling a disgusted face right now. But in fact, insects are a very good alternative to livestock, as they require much less resources to raise and take a far smaller toll on our ecosystem. But the thought alone of eating insects makes some people gag, yet that’s more of a mental barrier than anything else. In fact, most insects appear to taste like nuts, shellfish or apples. What if we could “reprint” insects into hip-looking protein bars? You’d forget the source of your healthy proteins within moments.

And of course, there’s the healthcare sector. I can testify that tearing your ligaments is not a fun experience, and the thought that they had to take one part of my body to fix another — essentially hurting two parts of my body with one accident — is not a fun thought either. What if we could print organs, muscles and other body parts? That’s a whole new industry waiting to happen, for which we need to answer some serious ethics topics. Can we introduce “organ renewal programs”? Can we reform healthcare around “preventive maintenance” rather than reactive care? It’s all possible within the realm of 3D printing.

So no, 3D printing isn’t just about supply chain improvements. The shock wave of 3D printing — once we get the material science behind it right — will send waves through your customer experience processes, not to mention food and healthcare.

Here are some practical tips for your organization:

  1. Appoint someone to scan the developments around this topic.
  2. Build up (or hire) design capabilities so you have people in-house who can dream-up the “art of the possible.” 
  3. Work together with research institutes to develop or learn on the latest materials.
  4. Start testing with some cheap printers to experiment and inspire.

It sometimes still sounds a bit futuristic, but there are a lot of companies making money with 3D printing. When will you be the next to take the competitive advantage?

Want to discuss further applications of 3D printing, and how to prepare your organization for its impact? Connect with me!

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