3D printing is a fascinating new and intuitively attractive technology. Seeing an object rise, layer by layer, as shown in the Financial Times video and interview with Abe Reichental, directly illustrates the possibilities and disruptive nature of this innovation. Let’s just print whatever we need when we need it. The old industry paradigm that high volume is needed to achieve low cost seems to be challenged. Consumer 3D printing was 2015 entering the Trough of Dissolutionment in the Gartner hype cycle, illustrating that we still have some time before the real impact will come. At that time Entrepreice 3D printing had however reached the Slope of Enlightenment. If 3D printing is “bigger than Internet”, as the FT story implies, or if it’s really the 3rd Industrial Revolution as the Economist labeled their article about the phenomenon, may be questioned. There is however no doubt that the technology will have a significant impact and in itself will create a huge new industry.
As with any new disruptive technology a new industry structure is emerging. The new logic, cost structure, speed, volume, variety etc. creates new business models, new interdependencies, new flows of tangible and intangible goods, secondary needs, supporting services etc. resulting in a new industry structure and overall new business logic. As with any new industry we get product innovation moving into process innovation and generations of product standards. But there are also new business roles in the industry value chain or value network. How this develops is not always obvious and sometimes we seem to take a fatalistic view rather than that this is something we can influence. All roles seem logical when an industry value chain has formed, but this development can to some extent be both predicted and influenced. As seen for the Internet, erasing barriers in terms of volume and speed to access information has resulted in new customer behaviors and needs as well as meeting old needs more efficiently and at a significantly lower cost. New business roles have risen such as search engines, internet security software, access providers etc. Even if similar functions have been seen before the power balance between the roles have in many aspects changes radically, as illustrated by companies like Google and Facebook. These companies are also example of actors that have not only been successful but have indeed been instrumental in shaping the whole business ecosystem.
So what are then the new roles arising in the 3D printing industry? Most research regarding industry value chains and value networks, focus on studying existing industries and give some but limited help when trying to predict future industry structures. When trying to make forecasts we have to fully understand the underlying logic of the new industry, what new needs the changes will drive and how the different new roles together can form a well functioning new business ecosystem. When doing such an analysis there are not one solution to the complex question, but many. In the case of 3D printing some questions do however return irrespectively of scenario. Where will the end user get suggestions regarding what to print? Where can you find data regarding interfaces when the printed object is part of a system, such as a car? What supporting roles will facilitate open innovation? Who can see to that the object is casted in other materials, such as metal alloys? Who will supply basic structure of products where the final product needs home printing to be completed? Who can see to that intellectual property rights are defended?
Being able to predict possible new industry structures, the business roles and their importance may give us a good indication on where to invest, stimulate, seek and drive new innovation. With the right timing, being proactive may even drive the development towards more favorable scenarios, depending on what role and position we plan to take.