When people in online user communities start collaboratively developing open-source innovations that have the potential to change an industry, how should the existing companies in the industry respond?
These days, 3-D printing is big news.1 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.2 “A new digital revolution is coming, this time in fabrication,” MIT professor Neil Gershenfeld wrote in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs.3 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. In this article, we examine 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. We then discuss 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.
Trends in 3-D Printing
The Leading Question
Is open source innovation a threat or an opportunity?
- Collaborative user innovation is most likely to happen in three kinds of environments.
- Existing companies have five possible responses.
- Proactive companies can take advantage of user-improved designs.
Also known as “additive manufacturing” or “rapid prototyping,” 3-D printing is the printing of solid, physical 3-D objects. Unlike machining processes, which are subtractive in nature, 3-D printing systems join together raw materials to form an object. Drawing on a computer-aided design (CAD) file, the design for an object is first divided into paper-thin, cross-sectional slices, which are then each ‘printed’ out of liquid, powder, plastic or metal materials in sequence until the entire object is created. The use of 3-D printing makes it possible to build physical models, prototypes, patterns, tooling components or production parts.