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What IT admins need to know about 3D printing technology

3D printing has made significant inroads in the enterprise. It offers an efficient way to prototype ideas, generate samples and build products, but it presents new challenges for admins.

3D printing technology is still relatively young, and it comes with a unique set of challenges -- along with a hefty price tag. But as prices drop and technology improves, 3D printing opens the door to new opportunities for innovating and conducting business.

At the heart of 3D printing is the virtual model. Sometimes it's created from scratch with 3D-modeling software or a computer-aided design program. 3D scanners can also generate the model based on an existing object. No matter the approach, the end result is a digital file that feeds into the 3D printer.

The printer reads the virtual object from the file, slices it into thin layers, and creates the physical object by setting down the material one layer at a time. The inner workings are much more involved than this, and they can differ from one type of 3D printer to the next. For example, some printers fuse together hot filaments to create the object. Other printers use photopolymers and ultraviolet light. Still others employ high-grade powders along with high-powered lasers.

3D printing technology in the enterprise

Desktop administrators could have their hands full with 3D printing. They must already protect financial and personally identifiable information, but the advent of 3D printing means they might now contend with protecting intellectual property in the form of large digital files. A careless or rogue employee could do irreparable damage to a company if those files are compromised. Administrators must come up with ways to protect the files without disrupting the collaborative workflow.

Administrators must also ensure that no desktop users can access the 3D printers in ways that violate the intellectual property protections on third-party products. Workers could open a company to costly liability claims if it prints products it doesn't have rights to, especially if users acquired the source files under questionable circumstances. In fact, IT must protect against 3D printers being used for any sort of illegal activity, such as creating weapons or drugs.

Plus, the files needed for 3D printing can be quite large; they eat up storage and bandwidth. And printing materials can be pricey and come with waste management requirements. Administrators must establish safeguards that prevent desktop users from sending jobs to the printer that are unnecessary or are not business related. They must also ensure there are not too many users vying for the same 3D resources at the same time.

Companies evaluating 3D printing must consider desktop administration and users; they must strike a balance between usability and abuse. Organizations can also lock down their printers so no one can access them. This makes them easier for desktop administrators to manage, but can hamper productivity.

Use cases for 3D printing technology

Although 3D printing has made inroads in the consumer market, the enterprise has the resources and practical requirements to push 3D printing into Star Trek territory. Engineering firms can create prototypes on the spot. Manufacturers can reduce time-to-market and lower inventory and shipping costs. Organizations of all types and sizes can innovate in ways that have not yet been possible.

Consider the time and resources that creating prototypes on-demand can save. Even the most sophisticated computer-generated renderings cannot compete with real three-dimensional objects. Architects can show clients scaled models of future buildings and renovations. Manufacturers can provide buyers with samples of upcoming product lines. People sharing ideas or collaborating on projects can more effectively communicate concept intricacies.

Companies evaluating 3D printing must consider desktop administration and users; they must strike a balance between usability and abuse.

Yet 3D printing has relevance beyond prototyping. The healthcare industry already uses 3D printing to create customized implants and prosthetics. Educational institutions use 3D printers to help train students in CAD programs so they can see the results of their work. Manufacturers turn to 3D printing to build specialty and obsolete parts that are impractical -- or impossible -- to produce in traditional ways.

3D printing can also affect how companies move and deliver products. Rather than warehousing inventory and shipping products long distances, businesses can implement strategically placed 3D printers and transmit the necessary digital files. If customers need specialized products or want to view prototypes and samples, local technicians need only pull up the files and print the physical objects.

The 3D printing challenge

One of the challenges of 3D printing is the cost. The price of consumer-grade printers continues to drop -- some come in under $1,000 -- but an industrial-strength printer can be much more expensive. Some cost more than $1 million.

A company must also consider maintenance and materials costs. And organizations need someone on staff with the expertise necessary to design models and carry out the printing processes; it's not possible to simply plug in a 3D printer and get off to the races. Businesses must ensure they have the right materials, software and 3D scanners -- if applicable. Design files must also be in the proper format.

Yet negotiating such logistics is nothing compared to the challenges IT teams face when it comes to safeguarding digital files. Protecting Microsoft Office documents is one matter, but protecting intellectual property and avoiding product counterfeiting takes security to a whole new level.

3D printing will undoubtedly become cheaper and better, which makes it easier for admins to set up a distributed network as partners and customers acquire their own printers. The more accessible 3D printing becomes, the more files must be shared among participants, and the greater the opportunity for those files to be compromised.

As with most technological breakthroughs, advancements in 3D printing technology precede the development of effective mechanisms to protect data at the heart of the technology. It will be a long time before 3D printing supports the type of watermarking and embedded tracking it will take to protect against theft on a global scale. Compromised design files can lead to extensive counterfeiting, as well as the loss of trade secrets.

3D printing can also raise physical concerns for those working around the printers. According to a recent study by U.S. and French researchers, certain 3D printers can emit large amounts of ultrafine particles as well as hazardous volatile organic compounds, all of which can affect human health.

For example, some printers emit styrene, a volatile organic compound that has been classified as a possible human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Any organization adding 3D printers to its inventories would do well to avoid operating them in poorly ventilated spaces or without gas and particle filtration systems.

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