These days, 3-D printing is much in the news. 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. Some see 3-D printing and related technologies as having 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.
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, the authors 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. They then discuss how existing companies can respond to — and sometimes benefit from — open-source innovation if it occurs in their industry.