3-D Printing will Drive Open Innovation

Technology like that imagined by Star Trek and the futuristic cartoon The Jetsons is becoming reality with 3-D printing. Also known as additive manufacturing, it creates customized solid three-dimensional objects from digital schematics. It has arrived – and it is disruptive.

Thirty years in the making, 3-D printing uses additive processes, where an object is created by laying down successive layers of material. Laser beams and molten plastic can be used to re-create many everyday objects, a button or a Tupperware top for instance, in a very short period of time. Ranging in cost from just a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands, these machines print in ABS plastic the same material found in today’s consumer products. Some models print in full color and at a very high resolution and can even use non-traditional material “inks,” printing with glass, ceramic, titanium, steel, copper, nylon and many other materials not usually associated with printers.

These amazing innovations will allow the mass audience to create anything from a glass decoration and titanium wedding ring, to more complicated objects such as a circuit board or a lower control arm for a vehicle. This may sound farfetched, but the reality is that this stuff is already happening. Large corporations are investing into 3-D printing to help cut the cost of prototyping and creating one-off or unique parts that would be cost prohibitive. The next step in the evolution of 3-D printing would be bringing the price down, which would allow it to be adopted by the mass market.

South by Southwest kicked off last Friday with a bold prediction that desktop 3-D printing will unleash a new industrial revolution guided by “creative explorers.” Makerbot CEO Bre Pettis showcased a small desktop 3-D printer priced at $2,200 for a fall 2013 launch. Pettis believes that 3-D printing for the masses will change the face of manufacturing, eliminating the need for high-volume production. He envisions a future where consumers will generate what they need at home or in a small shop, anything from children’s building blocks to a prosthetic hand.

“There’s a renaissance going on right now,” Pettis said. “It’s never been easier to make and share actual things.”

Thus far, 3-D printers have been used by commercial organizations for rapid product prototyping. Innovation teams create iterative prototypes fast and inexpensively to greatly shorten the time to market. Three-D printing is also a more cost-effective method to generate pre-production molds and some companies are starting to use it to manufacture end-use parts. Digital direct manufacturing (DDM) facilitates smarter low-volume manufacturing eliminating cost and lead times associated with machining or tooling. DDM makes on-the-fly design changes and just-in-time inventory possible.

Moore’s Law may be at work pushing down the cost of these machines and bringing them closer to the consumer market. If predictions by Pettis, Forbes magazine and others about the proliferation of 3-D printing are correct, we will see a paradigm shift equal to other user-generated content disruptive technologies like desktop publishing, digital music and consumer media production software.

We believe that should this “new industrial revolution guided by creative explorers” come to pass, Berkley professor Henry Chesbrough’s Open Innovation theory will become crucial to commercial survival and no longer a practice used just by the smartest companies. Chesbrough defines Open Innovation as, “a paradigm that assumes that firms can and should use external ideas as well as internal ideas, and internal and external paths to market, as the firms look to advance their technology.” He encourages “innovating with partners by sharing risk and sharing reward.” In a world of widely distributed knowledge, companies cannot afford to rely entirely on their own research, but should instead buy or license processes or inventions (i.e. patents) from other companies. Likewise, internal inventions that are deemed non-core to the business should be licensed or spun off.

An inventor’s dream made reality. Lower barriers to entry in the form of ubiquitous access to technology and information will give rise to a new DIY community. The consumer products and manufacturing old guard will give way to the creative proletariat. Will you open your doors and your eyes to the legions of creators with growth opportunities outside your gates? If not, you may find the walls of your corporate castle crumbling.

The corporate “not invented here” syndrome is deadlier than ever. Information is prolific and technology continues to level the playing field. Companies that remain insular will be left for dead as the world shifts to new business models that drive growth.