An advertisement for electronic and white goods retail chain MediaMarkt from last week included something very new: the back page of the pamphlet was dedicated to the MakerBot Replicator 2, one of the consumer market’s leading brands of 3D printer. The item is also available on MediaMarkt’s website.
In the United States, several chain stores have products of this type since Staples led the way last May. Walmart, for example, has not only a section dedicated to 3D and all corresponding spares, but will print while you wait, in the same way that Microsoft stores and others do. The opening of specialist print shops, whether in London or in Pamplona, reflects a fast-growing phenomenon.
Leaving aside the obvious potential of 3D printing in the consumer market, which is moving forward quickly with a range of new products, many of them developed thanks to crowdsourcing, and that are improving all the time, becoming cheaper and faster, I would like to turn my attention to the subject of corporative innovation. How many companies have dedicated any effort to analyzing with any degree of rigor the possible impact and growth potential of the fast-growing 3D printer market?
Any analysis of this kind of technology is complicated: we are witnessing the beginnings of something that will lead us, in a practical way, to be able to do more with atoms, in just the same way that we have seen with bits over the last decade. The implications are far reaching: from clients now able to do things that were once out of their reach, to distribution of certain piece or components, as well as raising questions related to intellectual property. Printing in three dimensions will affect the future of many industries, most of which still see 3D printing as little more than a curiosity, a toy, irrelevant, as though its current limitations will never be overcome.
The question here is: how should a company analyze this topic? Would setting up a committee help (as the saying goes: “if you want something to fail, set up a committee”)? Or perhaps we should call a specialist in to tell us all what is going on? How much do the people in the company who will be making decisions about this know about 3D printing? Which department should be responsible for thinking about something like this? Would the company benefit from having people in different areas up to date on the way the technology is developing, at the very least reading the news?
Specialization, or generalization? When bit technology began to threaten companies that survived on selling access to those bits or the supports they contained, many of these companies, despite having known what was coming, seemed surprised at what unfolded. Many months passed, in some cases years, of denying reality, along the lines of “this cannot be happening to us”. Nobody in these companies bothered to try the new technology, even to become a heavy user, and to try to understand the change to the value proposition it meant. How did innovation work in those companies?
Centralization or distribution? My problem with some companies with a reputation for innovation, or with departments dedicated to innovation is that their average employee is far from having any culture of innovation about things which to any young person or user with the least curiosity would seem normal, and instead are to them akin to flying saucers. My impression is that the genuinely innovative companies are those that manage to create a culture of innovation throughout every department, from the CEO to the receptionist; companies where unless you are interested in innovation, you are not going to feel at home.
Three-dimensional printing is just an example of how companies fail to innovate. These days, the businesses where we find this type of innovative culture not so much spread, but instead squeezed into every corner, are so because they were made that way, because of the areas they work in, as well as the hiring policy, and of course the philosophy of the founders and owners. These are all factors that can diminish over time. Corporate innovation requires structures that quite simply do not exist in the majority of companies. What systems would we put in place in our company if we really wanted to be ready to understand the implications of a particular new technology such as 3D printing? Are we sure that these are the approaches that would really prepare us for possible change, or even to lead the way by seizing new opportunities?