3D Printing myself into redundancy...

Well, maybe not immediately, but I can certainly see myself having to add dramatically to my technical skillset in a few short years if I want to stay relevant in helping companies lead their industries.

And the reason is because I can see the future...and it's sitting right behind me (and you're looking at it)...I'm excited, scared and fascinated...(more on that later).

But for now...why do I see myself potentially going the way of the dodo, typewriter mechanic and people who still think that bankers really do believe in free enterprise?

If I break down the focus of my assignments, a not insignificant portion of them are about supply chain optimization. Even when I work on high level organizational strategy, somehow we always end up discussing the supply chain and I always end up doing some very serious detailed work in this area. And if there is one thing I have learnt over the years and that I always drum into clients, it is this: from the second a product is finalized at the factory until the moment it is ready to be used at the location of the customer, every cent spent, every effort exerted on it is of no added value to the end user. It's a cost and effort the must be minimized.

It's as simple - and as difficult - as that.

And the challenges are huge: minimization of wait time; rapid transit; legal paperwork; safety of stock; correct location...it goes on and on. Get just one thing wrong, and the daisy chain of inter-dependency will rip into your true margin faster than . Lean Six Sigma is more than helpful, but in the end, you are still managing a complex, costly system of interdependent events. No matter how much simplification and CTQ low cost redundancy you build in, you still end up with something that needs a dedicated team of skilled, costly professionals to keep getting right (and not so right). But the brutal math makes sense...for now.

It won't soon.

And it's because of a technology that has been around for 15 years, but only within the last 3-5 years it has been approaching a tipping point.

It's 3D printing - essentially, it is about using various types of technologies (such as fused deposition modeling or selective laser sintering) to create complex items on a very small scale. Basic 3D printers can be had for only $3,000, and far less if you have some technical skill and can follow basic plans freely available online. Larger scale, professional printers can go to well over $20,000, but this price is only going one way...or it is staying at a certain price point and adding greater capabilities.

For a few years already, 3D printing has had a huge impact on prototyping. Models that used to take weeks to get done could be done in hours or even minutes. But now, objects such as pumps, air filters and other components can be created on the spot.

Make no mistake, cost effective 3D printing still has to resolve a number of issues relating to materials, mechanical properties, accuracy and scale for a number of applications. But equally, anyone who believes that the future of manufacturing still lies in the production/assembly of ETMs in large scale, dedicated high tech plants in 2nd/3rd world nations for containerized transport to first world nations for end users is in for one hell of a rude shock. That's not going to be the way of the future for a significant percentage of durable goods. And the days of high cost prototyping or high cost cost, one off products (such as artificial limbs) are well and truly numbered.

Calling 3D printing a hugely disruptive technology is barely giving it credit. It will transform our notions of product lifecycle management and supply chain best practice. It will shift whole nations economies - and likely slow down in the short term 2nd and 3rd world economies. And it will likely be the one saving grace for Western manufacturing. After all, why risk your intellectual property in China and India when you can control it right next to you? Why wait months or weeks for a customized ETM when you can have one in days or hours? Why even bother carrying a part for a 2004 Lotus when you can whip one out when needed?

And eventually for many companies...why should your customers even bother buying something from you when they can print it out themselves?

That effectively means you won't need as many ships, trucks or aircraft to move fully finished goods. 15,000 sqm warehouses brimming with stock? Not any more. Build to order takes on a whole new meaning. And Lean...how much leaner can you get?

And all this means people like me need to understand this technology: it's current state, anticipated progress, optimal usage, impact on existing infrastructure / processes and what is the ideal Body of Knowledge to bring it to fruition in the optimal manner.

I'll be writing more about my research experiences with my 3D printing experiment soon, but for now, I strongly encourage you to start researching this area: if ever there was a 'next big thing', this is it.