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Can IT support disruption?

IT must be ready for fundamental shifts in business and technological paradigms.

Stephen J. Bigelow, Senior Technology Editor

IT professionals are used to change – the reality of change is as old as IT itself. Everyone swaps servers during technology refresh cycles, and new versions of operating systems or key business applications can have IT staff working overtime to get users updated.

Still, change is always a challenge for IT. And while the logistical and technical demands of change will always stress budgets, tax patience, and fray nerves, the IT department soldiers on to solve problems and fight fires and support the business.

But what happens when a technology fundamentally changes the way a business or industry operates?

Just consider an emerging technology like 3D printing where solid objects are created by depositing materials in successive layers according to a digital model. The resulting 3D model can be used as the basis for molds and other core manufacturing processes – even using materials that are correct for the finished product, allowing a manufacturer to actually fabricate finished goods on demand.

The very notion that a company can produce products on-demand flies in the face of traditional business paradigms.

Consider the manufacturing process itself. Traditional manufacturing is based on economies of scale using mass-production of identical items. This involves further practices including logistics, warehousing, sales – the entire business infrastructure which relies on IT resources and support. When small numbers of products can be inexpensively fabricated on demand using an easily manipulated digital model, the business is profoundly affected; and so are the services and support that IT must provide.

There are implications for IT. Designs would proliferate as the number of models multiplies from designers and customers, requiring data storage and security. The concepts of enterprise resource planning (ERP) would change dramatically because the flow of materials into and out of the business would be radically different. Warehousing for work-in-progress and finished goods would be virtually eliminated. Goods could also be built on-site or at remote locations, greatly reducing transportation demands. Our very definition of manufacturing could change. Just imagine an automotive shop that can fabricate certain parts right on the shop floor, or a military unit that can produce key spare parts in the field.

Of course, such fabrication technology is far from perfect; today. But it’s an example of the way that new technologies and their refinement can re-define concepts and practices that are (in the case of mass-production) centuries-old. It’s a wakeup call that IT professionals must look ahead at the changing needs of business and position staff and systems to handle the types of changes that may appear on the horizon – or risk being discarded as obsolete.

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