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Ready To Download Your Next Pair Of Shoes? How 3D Printing Is Turning Bits Into Atoms

Nicholas Carlson

makerbot-replicator-2Remember how, in “Star Trek,” Captain Picard could tell a computer “tea, Earl Grey, hot” and, voilà, out of thin air, a hot, Early Grey tea would appear on a tray?

That computer was called a Replicator.  What it did was use software made of bits to create objects made of atoms.

Believe it or not, replicators of a sort have already existed outside of science fiction for years.

The truth is, we’ve been turning atoms into bits and bits into atoms for more than a decade now. Music used to be recorded by carving physical groves into records. These grooves vibrated a needle tunefully, and a funnel amplified the volume. Now, that atoms-oriented process has been replaced by software — the creation and reading of bits.

More recently, we’ve seen the advent of gadgets that are almost exactly like the Replicators in Star Trek. They’re called 3D printers. There are lots of different types of 3D printers, but one company, MakerBot, is actually selling them to consumers.

Their brand name?

The Replicator.

They aren’t making hot tea yet. But you can download all kinds of objects from the Internet — including toys, tools, and art — and use 3D printers to fabricate them in your home.

Someday you might be able to download your next pair of shoes from the Internet, and use a 3D printer to make them yourself. Someday, most of the physical objects you own might come together this way.

Obviously, that potential has huge consumer and business applications. Mike Maples, an influential early stage startup investor in Silicon Valley, spends a lot of time thinking about how them — and how technology is turning “atoms into bits” and back again.

Here’s a lightly-edited interview with Maples on the topic.

The idea that technology will soon turn “atoms into bits” is one I first heard from you. Could you explain what you mean?

“Atoms to bits” describes a tendency of products to transform from physical and constrained to virtual and unconstrained.  The most obvious early example was music.  It used to exist as a physical good (LP records), but over time transitioned into a bit-based product when it became possible to capture music in a file and copy and distribute it effortlessly.

We believe that the transition from atoms to bits will occur in a wider range of product categories over the next decade, enabled by new technology breakthroughs like 3D printing.

This feels like something out of “The Jetsons” or “Star Trek.” How did technology have to progress to the point where it’s realistic to talk about all this?

The technology business is magical — it guarantees us a doubling of computing performance every 18-24 months.  This exponential curve makes the power of our technology increase a million-fold every generation.  For instance, once you could turn a song into bits, it was only a matter of a few years before you could do the same with a DVD movie, Mike Maplesand more recently a Blu-Ray movie, or a home movie shot in 1080p from your iPhone.

But the bigger idea is that exponential advances in the next generation will allow an entire range of products to transform from atoms to bits — products that most people do not imagine today.  Various industries will be impacted by this, not just the media and entertainment businesses.

When do you think we’ll start seeing consumer application of this technology?

Applications are already widespread in media and entertainment, but they will spread.

When I was spending time at Singularity University, Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk, gave a very interesting talk about 3D printing.  He described how people are already starting to develop technologies to print in rubber, plastic, and metal.

He gave an example of 3D printing applied to sneakers.  Today, Nike makes more than 500 million pairs of shoes a year.  Imagine if, instead of them being made in China, they were instead printed on a 3D printer?  The process of purchasing a shoe would be like buying an “app” that contained a 3D CAD file for the shoe which could be printed directly.  Would this printer exist in a shoe store, a future Kinko’s, or even in someone’s living room?  That’s hard to guess.

Further out into the future, I have seen teams at Stanford who are working on the ability to print a human organ, which would be transformational for even more obvious reasons.

Turning objects into software raises serious piracy questions, doesn’t it?

Turning objects into software raises a lot of very interesting questions about industry disruption.  Piracy is an issue, but there are even more fundamental structural implications.

For example, if Nike develops the ability to “print” a pair of shoes, what does this mean for manufacturing?  Could manufacturing be re-defined and migrate back to the U.S.?

And, as you point out, it raises big concerns about piracy.  It’s very counter-intuitive to think that a pair of shoes might one day be stolen from Bit Torrent to be printed illegally in a consumer’s home while nobody is watching.

When Carl was discussing 3D printing, a movie executive was in the audience and he joked “Finally! Someone other than the music and movie industries are going to get ripped off!  We’ll see if people take piracy seriously then!”

But overall it seems like a very positive, empowering trend.  In the case of music, people forget that the industry used to have to build factories to mass-produce music, with all of their attendant physical costs as well as the externality costs of pollution and waste.  In the shoe example, the product could be recycled and re-printed, which could change the carbon footprint of shoe manufacturing along with the core economics of making and distributing shoes.

When Carl gave his talk on 3D printing, he said that technology is like the [parking lot exit] signs that say “Don’t back up.  Severe tire damage.”  That reminds me of the future opportunities we are likely to see.  The task is to keep moving forward with a proactive sense of the possible.  The option to move backwards is not really available to us, regardless of who might feel threatened or try to stop it.

What are some exciting consumer applications you envision?

Every physical thing that is designed and built today could be a target.  We discussed media and shoes, but people in academia are also experimenting with printing buildings — the opportunities are quite broad.

How are you investing around this opportunity?

Our basic metaphor is that physical products are tending to transition from “ice” to “liquid” to “vapor.”

Taking music as an example, the “ice” phase was when all of the music had to be purchased as a physical LP.  The “liquid” phase started when recordable media made it possible to make analog recordings of music on audiotapes.  The “gas” phase occurred when it became practical to make high-quality digital copies of music.  This is when music became an uncontrollable virtual good that forced the music industry to re-think its entire business model.

We are looking for enabling technologies that allow products to change their “states” and when we find these technologies, we try to ask which product categories are likely to be affected first.  But in terms of the specific areas, we are keeping that a secret for now!

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The implications of collaboration in the networked economy will continue to shape every aspect of the world we live in today and the changing world we will live in tomorrow. Get involved in the conversations on The Future of Business and read, watch and learn about the networked economy.

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Transform Or Die: What Will You Do In The Digital Economy?

Scott Feldman and Puneet Suppal

By now, most executives are keenly aware that the digital economy can be either an opportunity or a threat. The question is not whether they should engage their business in it. Rather, it’s how to unleash the power of digital technology while maintaining a healthy business, leveraging existing IT investments, and innovating without disrupting themselves.

Yet most of those executives are shying away Businesspeople in a Meeting --- Image by © Monalyn Gracia/Corbisfrom such a challenge. According to a recent study by MIT Sloan and Capgemini, only 15% of CEOs are executing a digital strategy, even though 90% agree that the digital economy will impact their industry. As these businesses ignore this reality, early adopters of digital transformation are achieving 9% higher revenue creation, 26% greater impact on profitability, and 12% more market valuation.

Why aren’t more leaders willing to transform their business and seize the opportunity of our hyperconnected world? The answer is as simple as human nature. Innately, humans are uncomfortable with the notion of change. We even find comfort in stability and predictability. Unfortunately, the digital economy is none of these – it’s fast and always evolving.

Digital transformation is no longer an option – it’s the imperative

At this moment, we are witnessing an explosion of connections, data, and innovations. And even though this hyperconnectivity has changed the game, customers are radically changing the rules – demanding simple, seamless, and personalized experiences at every touch point.

Billions of people are using social and digital communities to provide services, share insights, and engage in commerce. All the while, new channels for engaging with customers are created, and new ways for making better use of resources are emerging. It is these communities that allow companies to not only give customers what they want, but also align efforts across the business network to maximize value potential.

To seize the opportunities ahead, businesses must go beyond sensors, Big Data, analytics, and social media. More important, they need to reinvent themselves in a manner that is compatible with an increasingly digital world and its inhabitants (a.k.a. your consumers).

Here are a few companies that understand the importance of digital transformation – and are reaping the rewards:

  1. Under Armour:  No longer is this widely popular athletic brand just selling shoes and apparel. They are connecting 38 million people on a digital platform. By focusing on this services side of the business, Under Armour is poised to become a lifestyle advisor and health consultant, using his product side as the enabler.
  1. Port of Hamburg: Europe’s second-largest port is keeping carrier trucks and ships productive around the clock. By fusing facility, weather, and traffic conditions with vehicle availability and shipment schedules, the Port increased container handling capacity by 178% without expanding its physical space.
  1. Haier Asia: This top-ranking multinational consumer electronics and home appliances company decided to disrupt itself before someone else did. The company used a two-prong approach to digital transformation to create a service-based model to seize the potential of changing consumer behaviors and accelerate product development. 
  1. Uber: This startup darling is more than just a taxi service. It is transforming how urban logistics operates through a technology trifecta: Big Data, cloud, and mobile.
  1. American Society of Clinical Oncologists (ASCO): Even nonprofits can benefit from digital transformation. ASCO is transforming care for cancer patients worldwide by consolidating patient information with its CancerLinQ. By unlocking knowledge and value from the 97% of cancer patients who are not involved in clinical trials, healthcare providers can drive better, more data-driven decision making and outcomes.

It’s time to take action 

During the SAP Executive Technology Summit at SAP TechEd on October 19–20, an elite group of CIOs, CTOs, and corporate executives will gather to discuss the challenges of digital transformation and how they can solve them. With the freedom of open, candid, and interactive discussions led by SAP Board Members and senior technology leadership, delegates will exchange ideas on how to get on the right path while leveraging their existing technology infrastructure.

Stay tuned for exclusive insights from this invitation-only event in our next blog!
Scott Feldman is Global Head of the SAP HANA Customer Community at SAP. Connect with him on Twitter @sfeldman0.

Puneet Suppal drives Solution Strategy and Adoption (Customer Innovation & IoT) at SAP Labs. Connect with him on Twitter @puneetsuppal.

 

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About Scott Feldman and Puneet Suppal

Scott Feldman is the Head of SAP HANA International Customer Community. Puneet Suppal is the Customer Co-Innovation & Solution Adoption Executive at SAP.

What Is Digital Transformation?

Andreas Schmitz

Achieving quantum leaps through disruption and using data in new contexts, in ways designed for more than just Generation Y — indeed, the digital transformation affects us all. It’s time for a detailed look at its key aspects.

Data finding its way into new settings

Archiving all of a company’s internal information until the end of time is generally a good idea, as it gives the boss the security that nothing will be lost. Meanwhile, enabling him or her to create bar graphs and pie charts based on sales trends – preferably in real time, of course – is even better.

But the best scenario of all is when the boss can incorporate data from external sources. All of a sudden, information on factors as seemingly mundane as the weather start helping to improve interpretations of fluctuations in sales and to make precise modifications to the company’s offerings. When the gusts of autumn begin to blow, for example, energy providers scale back solar production and crank up their windmills. Here, external data provides a foundation for processes and decisions that were previously unattainable.

Quantum leaps possible through disruption

While these advancements involve changes in existing workflows, there are also much more radical approaches that eschew conventional structures entirely.

“The aggressive use of data is transforming business models, facilitating new products and services, creating new processes, generating greater utility, and ushering in a new culture of management,” states Professor Walter Brenner of the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, regarding the effects of digitalization.

Harnessing these benefits requires the application of innovative information and communication technology, especially the kind termed “disruptive.” A complete departure from existing structures may not necessarily be the actual goal, but it can occur as a consequence of this process.

Having had to contend with “only” one new technology at a time in the past, be it PCs, SAP software, SQL databases, or the Internet itself, companies are now facing an array of concurrent topics, such as the Internet of Things, social media, third-generation e-business, and tablets and smartphones. Professor Brenner thus believes that every good — and perhaps disruptive — idea can result in a “quantum leap in terms of data.”

Products and services shaped by customers

It has already been nearly seven years since the release of an app that enables customers to order and pay for taxis. Initially introduced in Berlin, Germany, mytaxi makes it possible to avoid waiting on hold for the next phone representative and pay by credit card while giving drivers greater independence from taxi dispatch centers. In addition, analyses of user data can lead to the creation of new services, such as for people who consistently order taxis at around the same time of day.

“Successful models focus on providing utility to the customer,” Professor Brenner explains. “In the beginning, at least, everything else is secondary.”

In this regard, the private taxi agency Uber is a fair bit more radical. It bypasses the entire taxi industry and hires private individuals interested in making themselves and their vehicles available for rides on the Uber platform. Similarly, Airbnb runs a platform travelers can use to book private accommodations instead of hotel rooms.

Long-established companies are also undergoing profound changes. The German publishing house Axel Springer SE, for instance, has acquired a number of startups, launched an online dating platform, and released an app with which users can collect points at retail. Chairman and CEO Matthias Döpfner also has an interest in getting the company’s newspapers and other periodicals back into the black based on payment models, of course, but these endeavors are somewhat at odds with the traditional notion of publishing houses being involved solely in publishing.

The impact of digitalization transcends Generation Y

Digitalization is effecting changes in nearly every industry. Retailers will likely have no choice but to integrate their sales channels into an omnichannel approach. Seeking to make their data services as attractive as possible, BMW, Mercedes, and Audi have joined forces to purchase the digital map service HERE. Mechanical engineering companies are outfitting their equipment with sensors to reduce downtime and achieve further product improvements.

“The specific potential and risks at hand determine how and by what means each individual company approaches the subject of digitalization,” Professor Brenner reveals. The resulting services will ultimately benefit every customer – not just those belonging to Generation Y, who present a certain basic affinity for digital methods.

“Think of cars that notify the service center when their brakes or drive belts need to be replaced, offer parking assistance, or even handle parking for you,” Brenner offers. “This can be a big help to elderly people in particular.”

Chief digital officers: team members, not miracle workers

Making the transition to the digital future is something that involves not only a CEO or a head of marketing or IT, but the entire company. Though these individuals do play an important role as proponents of digital models, it also takes more than just a chief digital officer alone.

For Professor Brenner, appointing a single person to the board of a DAX company to oversee digitalization is basically absurd. “Unless you’re talking about Da Vinci or Leibnitz born again, nobody could handle such a task,” he states.

In Brenner’s view, this is a topic for each and every department, and responsibilities should be assigned much like on a soccer field: “You’ve got a coach and the players – and the fans, as well, who are more or less what it’s all about.”

Here, the CIO neither competes with the CDO nor assumes an elevated position in the process of digital transformation. Implementing new databases like SAP HANA or Hadoop, leveraging sensor data in both technical and commercially viable ways, these are the tasks CIOs will face going forward.

“There are some fantastic jobs out there,” Brenner affirms.

Want more insight on managing digital transformation? See Three Keys To Winning In A World Of Disruption.

Image via Shutterstock

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Andreas Schmitz

About Andreas Schmitz

Andreas Schmitz is a Freelance Journalist for SAP, covering a wide range of topics from big data to Internet of Things, HR, business innovation and mobile.

Running Future Cities on Blockchain

Dan Wellers , Raimund Gross and Ulrich Scholl

Building on the Blockchain Framework

Some experts say these seemingly far-future speculations about the possibilities of combining technologies using blockchain are actually both inevitable and imminent:


Democratizing design and manufacturing by enabling individuals and small businesses to buy, sell, share, and digitally remix products affordably while protecting intellectual property rights.
Decentralizing warehousing and logistics by combining autonomous vehicles, 3D printers, and smart contracts to optimize delivery of products and materials, and even to create them on site as needed.
Distributing commerce by mixing virtual reality, 3D scanning and printing, self-driving vehicles, and artificial intelligence into immersive, personalized, on-demand shopping experiences that still protect buyers’ personal and proprietary data.

The City of the Future

Imagine that every agency, building, office, residence, and piece of infrastructure has an entry on a blockchain used as a city’s digital ledger. This “digital twin” could transform the delivery of city services.

For example:

  • Property owners could easily monetize assets by renting rooms, selling solar power back to the grid, and more.
  • Utilities could use customer data and AIs to make energy-saving recommendations, and smart contracts to automatically adjust power usage for greater efficiency.
  • Embedded sensors could sense problems (like a water main break) and alert an AI to send a technician with the right parts, tools, and training.
  • Autonomous vehicles could route themselves to open parking spaces or charging stations, and pay for services safely and automatically.
  • Cities could improve traffic monitoring and routing, saving commuters’ time and fuel while increasing productivity.

Every interaction would be transparent and verifiable, providing more data to analyze for future improvements.


Welcome to the Next Industrial Revolution

When exponential technologies intersect and combine, transformation happens on a massive scale. It’s time to start thinking through outcomes in a disciplined, proactive way to prepare for a future we’re only just beginning to imagine.

Download the executive brief Running Future Cities on Blockchain.


Read the full article Pulling Cities Into The Future With Blockchain

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About Dan Wellers

Dan Wellers is founder and leader of Digital Futures at SAP, a strategic insights and thought leadership discipline that explores how digital technologies drive exponential change in business and society.

Raimund Gross

About Raimund Gross

Raimund Gross is a solution architect and futurist at SAP Innovation Center Network, where he evaluates emerging technologies and trends to address the challenges of businesses arising from digitization. He is currently evaluating the impact of blockchain for SAP and our enterprise customers.

Ulrich Scholl

About Ulrich Scholl

Ulrich Scholl is Vice President of Industry Cloud and Custom Development at SAP. In this role, Ulrich discovers and implements best practices to help further the understanding and adoption of the SAP portfolio of industry cloud innovations.

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4 Traits Set Digital Leaders Apart From 97% Of The Competition

Vivek Bapat

Like the classic parable of the blind man and the elephant, it seems everyone has a unique take on digital transformation. Some equate digital transformation with emerging technologies, placing their bets on as the Internet of Things, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. Others see it as a way to increase efficiencies and change business processes to accelerate product to market. Some others think of it is a means of strategic differentiation, innovating new business models for serving and engaging their customers. Despite the range of viewpoints, many businesses are still challenged with pragmatically evolving digital in ways that are meaningful, industry-disruptive, and market-leading.

According to a recent study of more than 3,000 senior executives across 17 countries and regions, only a paltry three percent of businesses worldwide have successfully completed enterprise-wide digital transformation initiatives, even though 84% of C-level executives ranks such efforts as “critically important” to the fundamental sustenance of their business.

The most comprehensive global study of its kind, the SAP Center for Business Insight report “SAP Digital Transformation Executive Study: 4 Ways Leaders Set Themselves Apart,” in collaboration with Oxford Economics, identified the challenges, opportunities, value, and key technologies driving digital transformation. The findings specifically analyzed the performance of “digital leaders” – those who are connecting people, things, and businesses more intelligently, more effectively, and creating punctuated change faster than their less advanced rivals.

After analyzing the data, it was eye-opening to see that only three percent of companies (top 100) are successfully realizing their full potential through digital transformation. However, even more remarkable was that these leaders have four fundamental traits in common, regardless of their region of operation, their size, their organizational structure, or their industry.

We distilled these traits in the hope that others in the early stages of transformation or that are still struggling to find their bearings can embrace these principles in order to succeed. Ultimately I see these leaders as true ambidextrous organizations, managing evolutionary and revolutionary change simultaneously, willing to embrace innovation – not just on the edges of their business, but firmly into their core.

Here are the four traits that set these leaders apart from the rest:

Trait #1: They see digital transformation as truly transformational

An overwhelming majority (96%) of digital leaders view digital transformation as a core business goal that requires a unified digital mindset across the entire enterprise. But instead of allowing individual functions to change at their own pace, digital leaders prefer to evolve the organization to help ensure the success of their digital strategies.

The study found that 56% of these businesses regularly shift their organizational structure, which includes processes, partners, suppliers, and customers, compared to 10% of remaining companies. Plus, 70% actively bring lines of business together through cross-functional processes and technologies.

By creating a firm foundation for transformation, digital leaders are further widening the gap between themselves and their less advanced competitors as they innovate business models that can mitigate emerging risks and seize new opportunities quickly.

Trait #2: They focus on transforming customer-facing functions first

Although most companies believe technology, the pace of change, and growing global competition are the key global trends that will affect everything for years to come, digital leaders are expanding their frame of mind to consider the influence of customer empowerment. Executives who build a momentum of breakthrough innovation and industry transformation are the ones that are moving beyond the high stakes of the market to the activation of complete, end-to-end customer experiences.

In fact, 92% of digital leaders have established sophisticated digital transformation strategies and processes to drive transformational change in customer satisfaction and engagement, compared to 22% of their less mature counterparts. As a result, 70% have realized significant or transformational value from these efforts.

Trait #3: They create a virtuous cycle of digital talent

There’s little doubt that the competition for qualified talent is fierce. But for nearly three-quarters of companies that demonstrate digital-transformation leadership, it is easier to attract and retain talent because they are five times more likely to leverage digitization to change their talent management efforts.

The impact of their efforts goes beyond empowering recruiters to identify best-fit candidates, highlight risk factors and hiring errors, and predict long-term talent needs. Nearly half (48%) of digital leaders understand that they must invest heavily in the development of digital skills and technology to drive revenue, retain productive employees, and create new roles to keep up with their digital maturity over the next two years, compared to 30% of all surveyed executives.

Trait #4: They invest in next-generation technology using a bimodal architecture

A couple years ago, Peter Sondergaard, senior vice president at Gartner and global head of research, observed that “CIOs can’t transform their old IT organization into a digital startup, but they can turn it into a bi-modal IT organization. Forty-five percent of CIOs state they currently have a fast mode of operation, and we predict that 75% of IT organizations will be bimodal in some way by 2017.”

Based on the results of the SAP Center for Business Insight study, Sondergaard’s prediction was spot on. As digital leaders dive into advanced technologies, 72% are using a digital twin of the conventional IT organization to operate efficiently without disruption while refining innovative scenarios to resolve business challenges and integrate them to stay ahead of the competition. Unfortunately, only 30% of less advanced businesses embrace this view.

Working within this bimodal architecture is emboldening digital leaders to take on incredibly progressive technology. For example, the study found that 50% of these firms are using artificial intelligence and machine learning, compared to seven percent of all respondents. They are also leading the adoption curve of Big Data solutions and analytics (94% vs. 60%) and the Internet of Things (76% vs. 52%).

Digital leadership is a practice of balance, not pure digitization

Most executives understand that digital transformation is a critical driver of revenue growth, profitability, and business expansion. However, as digital leaders are proving, digital strategies must deliver a balance of organizational flexibility, forward-looking technology adoption, and bold change. And clearly, this approach is paying dividends for them. They are growing market share, increasing customer satisfaction, improving employee engagement, and, perhaps more important, achieving more profitability than ever before.

For any company looking to catch up to digital leaders, the conversation around digital transformation needs to change immediately to combat three deadly sins: Stop investing in one-off, isolated projects hidden in a single organization. Stop viewing IT as an enabler instead of a strategic partner. Stop walling off the rest of the business from siloed digital successes.

As our study shows, companies that treat their digital transformation as an all-encompassing, all-sharing, and all-knowing business imperative will be the ones that disrupt the competitive landscape and stay ahead of a constantly evolving economy.

Follow me on twitter @vivek_bapat 

For more insight on digital leaders, check out the SAP Center for Business Insight report, conducted in collaboration with Oxford Economics,SAP Digital Transformation Executive Study: 4 Ways Leaders Set Themselves Apart.”

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About Vivek Bapat

Vivek Bapat is the Senior Vice President, Global Head of Marketing Strategy and Thought Leadership, at SAP. He leads SAP's Global Marketing Strategy, Messaging, Positioning and related Thought Leadership initiatives.