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Innovation Lessons From 3-D Printing

The use of 3-D printing and other related technologies is seen as having potentially transformative implications. "Just as the Web democratized innovation in bits, a new class of 'rapid prototyping' technologies, from 3-D printers to laser cutters, is democratizing innovation in atoms," Wired magazine's longtime editor-in-chief, Chris Anderson, stated in his new book Makers: The New Industrial Revolution. "A new digital revolution is coming, this time in fabrication," MIT professor Neil Gershenfeld wrote in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs.

The longer-term implications of 3-D printing technologies are believed to be large. Direct advantages include enabling designers to operate more efficiently and conveniently. They can quickly prototype their designs in order to test their viability or demonstrate them. Moreover, 3-D printing enables entirely new products to be developed. With layer-wise 3-D printing processes, many limitations of existing production processes are removed. Widespread use of 3-D printing will also likely have implications for production, logistics and retail, since there will be less need to centrally fabricate products and distribute them if individuals can download and locally print a product's design.

But in addition to 3-D printing's technological implications, recent evolutions in 3-D printing offer important management lessons for executives about the changing face of technological innovation — and what that means for businesses. This article examines the rapid emergence of a movement called open-source 3-D printing and how it fits into a general trend toward open-source innovation by collaborative online communities. It also explores how existing companies can respond to open-source innovation if it occurs in their industry — and whether such collaborative innovation projects represent a threat or an opportunity for existing businesses.

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