Tech chiefs are constantly bombarded with technologies promising to be the next big thing, making it hard for them to know what to watch and what to ignore.
3D printing is a digital technology that many observers feel will become increasingly important: analyst firm Gartner, for example, has put 3D printing on a list of critical technologies that CIOs need to understand, and argued that 3D printing has "formidable, transformational potential" that CIOs should not underestimate.
Gartner has predicted that if 3D printing really takes off it could affect global trade by eliminating the need to import and disintermediate any part of the supply chain. The analyst firm also warned that "CIOs need to have a position on how transformational (or not) 3D printing will be in their industry and enterprise and related issues like intellectual property rights."
But for CIOs who have to also track a range of other emerging technologies (the Gartner list also includes the Internet of Things, robotics and human augmentation), is 3D printing really something that they should have on their radar — or is it still too far from the mainstream?
When asked "Is 3D printing a technology that CIOs need to have on their radar today", the ZDNet/TechRepublic CIO Jury of tech decision makers was evenly split, reflecting how interest in 3D printing currently varies widely by industry.
Shawn Beighle, CIO at the International Republican Institute, said "All technology should be on the radars of CIOs, at least in terms of how it might improve upon business processes. In my own organization, I don't really see the need for 3D printing, but that does not mean that I'm not open to the idea."
Florentin Albu, CIO at the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, said he had been monitoring developments in 3D printing for several years and saw it as a clear example of crowd-based innovation, with people openly experimenting, sharing their results and applying the feedback and knowledge back into their projects to improve them further.
"3D printing is going to shake up a lot of businesses which deal with physical goods, and is no doubt going to bring a lot of intellectual property challenges," he said.
According to Albu, CIOs are in the position to be the 'chief innovation officer' for the business: "We are the catalyst, enabling the employees to see the technology in action and letting them bring these ideas to life," he said.
Albu feels that potentially disruptive technologies like this should be assessed in a three-step process. The first step is to involve employees in the form of workshops and idea contests to help uncover new perspectives that can be explored further. The ideas generated can then be assessed and some explored in a more structured manner for their potential to deliver competitive advantages, which can then lead a third stage where business cases can be developed for the most promising ideas.
Healthcare tech chiefs seem particularly aware of the potential of 3D printing for their industry. Brian Wells, associate CIO at Penn Medicine, said it was definitely be something to be experimented with: "In healthcare the ability to 3D print a replica of a patient's organ prior to surgery enables the surgery team to plan the surgery in more accurate ways. And printing is relatively easy given the 3D imaging (CT Scan) already being used."
Richard Storey, head of IT at Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust, said: "Clinical innovation already uses 3D imaging; 3D printing is and will become part of the mainstream clinical treatment package."
"3D printing is going to shake up a lot of businesses which deal with physical goods, and is no doubt going to bring a lot of intellectual property challenges."
— Florentin Albu, CIO at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation
Other tech chiefs also see some clear and immediate benefits to using 3D printers, helping with product design or rapid prototyping. For example, Brad Novak, IT director at Goettsch Partners, said: "Being an architectural design firm we currently use two 3D printers. They are an invaluable part of our design process as well as a tremendous communication tool for our clients."
Similarly, Kelly Bodway, VP of IT at Universal Lighting Technologies, said: "This is on my radar and provides for massive reductions in prototyping time for my company's products." He added: "The technology needs to advance just a little more so larger products can be printed efficiently and cost effectively."
Others, including tech chiefs in the services sector, found little use for 3D printing in their industry. John Gracyalny, VP of IT at SafeAmerica Credit Union, said: "As we are in financial services and produce loans, as opposed to producing widgets, I don't intend it to impact my industry specifically," although he added: "I intend to get one for my house, where I can see some uses, say custom plumbing joints or light fixtures."
Michael Spears, CIO at NCCI Holdings, echoed Gracyalny's view: "3D printing will be transformative in certain sectors, but your mainstream CIO in areas such as financial services, is unlikely to find transformative value in the short run."
Gavin Megnauth, group CIO at Impellam, said he struggled to see a use in a professional services firm, but added: "We had a screw missing on a recently delivered rack-mounted server and our first response was: 'wouldn't it have been useful if we had a 3D [printer]'..."
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