By Barry Jaruzelski and Richard Holman
3D printers are quickly becoming more versatile and available, with new technologies, materials and uses being introduced ever more frequently. What once generated flimsy structures out of simple plastics now prints engine parts from complex titanium alloys and bone tissue from human stem cells.
But the application of 3D printing is not limited to final products or even manufacturing models. Many companies are turning to 3D printing earlier and earlier in the innovation process to gather insights into customer needs. In fact, a third of the respondents to the survey we conducted for this year’s Global Innovation 1000 study, our ninth annual study of corporate R&D spending and innovation performance, indicated they are using rapid prototyping, including 3D printing, in their efforts to develop ideas for new products. And they rated the technology as the single most effective digital tool across all stages of the innovation process.
So how can other companies leverage 3D printing effectively throughout their innovation processes? Your choices have to be rooted in your innovation strategy and the capabilities necessary to carry it out. But the findings of our study suggest three key considerations for everyone:
1. Start earlier. One of the benefits of 3D printing is its ability to easily produce high-fidelity prototypes that people can hold in their hands. Development teams can print 20 different versions of a product, give them to a focus group, and let them discuss the pros and cons of each one. Philips Professional Lighting Solutions NA, a maker of commercial lighting systems, uses 3D printing to make mock-ups of its fixtures so its R&D team can share them inside the company and with customers. “We can make a mock-up that people can look at and physically touch. They can make suggestions and corrections, and we can make another one in an hour,” says Bob Esmeijer, the division’s business leader.
The ability to gather this degree of practical customer reactions to new ideas has become increasingly critical to successful innovation. We have found over the years that companies that focus on connecting directly with end customers as early in the innovation process as possible, as part of their innovation strategy, are more likely to financially outperform their industry peers than those that employ more indirect methods. In fact, companies making the highest use of direct end-user engagement have profit growth three times that of those relying on traditional methods. And 3D printing is becoming a high-impact tool in supporting such customer insight generation efforts.
2. Develop faster. Companies are also using 3D printing to sidestep the traditional, cumbersome processes used to create initial models of final products and parts, enabling them to push through the development stage of innovation much more quickly than in the past. For example, they spend less time and money sending designs to domestic and overseas suppliers who then need to build molds and make castings before returning initial models, providing manufacturers with feedback and alterations, and then waiting and repeating the process over and over again until the perfected final product has been devised. This means new products can be introduced to the marketplace sooner and companies are more likely to get a jump on the competition’s offerings. Pitney Bowes, for instance, has embedded 3D printing into its physical development processes, markedly improving cycle time and speed to market. One Pitney Bowes R&D executive says the company wouldn’t know what to do without it anymore.
3. Think further ahead. As important as 3D printing is becoming at the ideation and development stages of the R&D process, its promise reaches beyond product innovation. Companies will need to anticipate potential new business models as 3D printing transforms entire value chains. Some are already looking to the technology as a means of mass customization, where each customer can choose the features she or he wants, and the products are automatically printed out. Others are beginning to move away from maintaining warehouses full of spare parts and instead printing out parts as needed from their collection of digital files. The possibilities are nearly infinite—but regardless of which are actually realized, to remain competitive, companies will need to find the right way to leverage 3D printing as part of the capabilities that distinguish them throughout their ideation, development, manufacturing, sales and aftermarket operations.
It’s a lot to ask of one technology. But because 3D printing represents one of the first real bridges between the digital and physical worlds, it has the potential to live up to its lofty expectations.
About the Authors
Barry Jaruzelski, a senior partner who leads the Global Engineered Products & Services Practice, and Richard Holman, a partner who is a part of the North American Innovation Practice, are both with Booz & Company, a leading global management consulting firm. Jaruzelski and Holman are also co-authors of Booz & Company’s Global Innovation 1000 study.