3D Printing and Mass Customisation: Transforming the Future
Future Tech 2024: An Interview with Ginna Raahauge, Senior Vice President and CIO, Riverbed
In this Future Tech interview, we’re continuing our discussion with Ginna Raahauge, Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer (CIO) of Riverbed, Ginna is a business-oriented technology leader playing a key leadership role defining and delivering strategies that bring value for Riverbed customers, partners and shareholders. Ginna is responsible for achieving business value and growth in the form of delivering enterprise technology architectures and platforms that capture new business models and showcase the Riverbed platform. Ginna brings more than 20 years of technology and business leadership experience across the high tech industry vertical, and along the way developed a deep interest in 3D printing technology. (In Part 1 of the interview we talked about the ways that 3D printing is set to disrupt business as usual across a wide range of industries — transport and logistics, manufacturing, construction, and the arts, to name a few.)
Can Electronic Circuitry be 3D Printed?
SE: I’ve seen some really interesting healthcare applications that have embedded sensors where they’re printing, if you like, almost skin tattoos that you just rubber stamp onto yourself, and they can communicate with ingestible pills that you swallow and the pills communicate with this little tattoo or elastomer on your skin, and it’s got communications capabilities both to the pill and to your smartphone, and they’ve been 3D printed. It’s quite amazing how quickly it’s come along. It reminds me in so many ways to the speed and continuing evolution of the whole computing paradigm where we went from room-sized computers that did not do much at all, to computer chips that sit inside our phones that are more powerful than the biggest supercomputers of a decade or two ago.
GR: Yes, it absolutely is that parallel. Again, the technology has been around a long time, and what you’re seeing is this acceleration of how it’s applied, the use cases and even the technology. I know a few years ago when I talked to the SVP that was running the supply chain at my last company, and I said, “Look, I think 3D printing could be really disruptive to the supply chain,” the common kind of glaring question I got back was, “You can’t print electronics,” and I said, “They’re working on that, and it’s just a matter of time before you can actually print the electronics and print the chip.” Yes, I think that time is here.
SE: Let’s talk for a moment about 3D printing in the manufacturing process. Do you see this as perhaps part of a completely automated factory, a robot factory?
GR: I think that’s a real possibility, and I think there’s probably people that are incubating that and testing that out right now. I mean, robots have been tested in factories in the car industry for a long time. Automation is definitely the name of the game in any kind of factory. They’re always running on very low margins, so they need to automate as much as possible. They are the best areas to try these types of innovations because it does help them. I think it gets back to that self-healing concept when we talked about self-healing factories, and that is really a more real and progressive reality today than some of the other topics we were talking about, such as will there ever be a self-healing data centre?
The factories definitely will use 3D printing because machinery has sensors. It’s going to know it’s down. If you have 3D printing right there on site, it could print the part or the element that it needs, and the robot could then go and implement and put that part in and get that factory going. That’s part of the concept of self-healing, and what it means is it starts to understand either over time that a part is going to break, or it has broken, and how it actually corrects itself without any human intervention at all.
SE: I suppose in the initial days, you might have a human in the chain somewhere between the machine sensing that it needs something and the 3D printer printing it. I’m not sure if the robot healing mechanisms are quite there yet, but I think they’re moving very quickly in that direction.
GR: Yes, I would agree with you.
SE: What about CAD providers? What are they doing with 3D printing? Have they embraced it?
GR: Yes, I’ve seen some here in San Francisco. Autodesk is doing a lot in 3D printing. Obviously, Autodesk is one of the leading CAD providers for a lot of the industrial engineering and infrastructure providers across the globe. That’s not the only thing that they do. And, they’ve set up quite a few labs and a showroom, a gallery of sorts, of all of the 3D printing concepts. They actually have a pier here in San Francisco dedicated to what they call Instructables, and it’s all about testing out all kinds of 3D printing applications and form factors, and that’s where entrepreneurs can kind of go and test out their theories.
SE: Wow. That sounds like an interesting place. I wish I was closer to San Francisco. I would love to go there and take a tour around.
GR: Yes, it’s pretty fascinating.
SE: Is it open to the public, or is it by appointment only?
GR: It’s generally by appointment only, but I believe they sometimes will have special events where they’ll open it up, but generally you can go to Autodesk and ask for a tour and get on the tour schedule.
SE: That’s fascinating. The next time I’m in San Francisco, it will be on my agenda.
The next area that I’d like to touch on is in the car industry. Have you seen anything with 3D printing there?
GR: I believe there’s more and more coming online with cars. What I have experienced is more at the parts level, ordering small little intricate parts or replacement pieces. I’m not sure where it’s gone mainstream in the actual original manufacturing of those parts though.
SE: It makes a lot of sense for replacements and spares to be 3D printed. It’s the same argument that you would use for the high-tech industry in that you’ve got lots of parts, and you need them in different places, and you want them quickly, and you don’t necessarily want to have warehouses full of things that you’re not going to use.
GR: Right, right.
SE: Exactly. How do you think that all of this is going to impact the transport industry? If we fast-forward a few years where we have 3D printing hubs either as part of a supply depot or perhaps from a dedicated 3D printing shop or maybe even in data centres, do you imagine that that will have a big impact on air and shipping freight international, for example?
GR: Yes, I think that’s where we’re probably going to start to see some of the first impacts and cost savings as people start being able to print locally. There’s going to definitely be more of a local movement. Even a customisation movement, people are going to be able to get what they want when they want even inside their homes, depending on what that item is.
I think the second thing we’ll start to see is a disruption in the actual contract manufacturing. Today, a lot of things are manufactured overseas, typically in the Asia region, and I think that they’re going to see some pressure. I think it’s going to shift the way manufacturing is actually done and where manufacturing is done, and it’s going to make manufacturing more cost-effective in your local regions, where, like for the United States, that’s been a big thing. The reason a lot of the manufacturing went outside of the United States is that it got too costly to do the labour here. I believe we’re going to see a lot of labour disruption.
SE: Yes, that makes a lot of sense because running a robot in America or Australia isn’t considerably more or less expensive than running a robot in a second- or third-world country. In fact, it might even be cheaper because we have infrastructure and bandwidth.
And, I imagine that if we start moving into this paradigm of 3D printing being a big part of the manufacturing process that we’re going to be sending around a lot of data, and some of these files will be quite large because the complexity of the things that we’re printing is growing, and that means more data. What’s your view on that, Ginna?
GR: I think we have an insatiable need for more and more data, and we like sending things around and sharing things and creating more data as well. It’s just general human beings.
Data is going to be the name of the game. I think you mentioned earlier also the security aspect is going to be really big. Understanding what’s going where, to whom, making sure it’s in the proper hands will be critical. But that consumption in bandwidth is just going to be there, and I think it’s going to be a precursor to more piping of what we need across the world for bandwidth and sending that around. It is going to shift from actually shipping parts to shipping the files and the data around.
SE: In Australia, we’ve been having this debate about the National Broadband Network (NBN), and one of the arguments against the government investing is, well, the only thing people are going to do with the bandwidth is just watch TV or naughty TV — porn, or do other things that aren’t really going to help our economy. It occurs to me that with something like 3D printing, we might really have the killer app for a National Broadband Network or any other high-speed network simply because of the volume of data in the files and the immediacy of people wanting something when they want it.
GR: Exactly, and I think that’s where you’re going to get the consumption demand. You’re going to see, as people don’t go to the store to buy their shoes and they actually print their shoes, they actually need to pump that data through. It may be an internal network, but if they’re actually downloading that file from, say, one of the major shoe manufacturers, then they’re going to be pulling that file down. I think that’s what some of these companies like Autodesk are getting into. They’re starting to realise that these CAD files are huge and companies do want to serve them up, and maybe what they should do is actually host and provide a service where that data can be housed and then pumped out to whoever needs it, whether it’s a consumer or another enterprise.
SE: That goes back to my earlier comment about data centres being a potential 3D printing hub because storing this kind of data is a natural fit for data centres, which are high-security buildings.
GR: Yes. Yes, very true.
SE: Let’s just turn to 3D printing in the consumer space. You mentioned printing shoes, and I would imagine that printing almost any type of clothing item or even sporting good that is highly personalised and an exact fit could be another one of these killer applications for 3D printing. Have you looked at that at all, Ginna?
GR: Absolutely. Nike is one of the emerging companies out there that’s really taking customisation and 3D printing and putting it altogether where you can actually order your shoes and you can custom-design your shoes and they are one of a kind, and they’ll 3D print them and ship them to you. It is quite fascinating, and I do think we’re just scratching the surface.
Nike’s Series of 3D Printed Shoes Continue Doing It
There was another application that I saw on TechCrunch — where a Stanford MBA student actually created makeup out of a 3D printer, and it was real makeup from lipstick to eye liner and custom colours. It’s all about the general Pantone colour-coding system that everybody uses in creating anything, and she created a custom colour for herself, printed it right there, applied it on. From clothing to makeup to everything that the consumer is going to want — vases, dishware, you name it, and I think it’s going to become more and more pervasive.
SE: Well, when you combine 3D scanning technology with the ability to then 3D print something that custom matches the form of whatever you’ve scanned, you start to get an extremely personalised product.
GR: You do, and it is all about customisation and consumerisation of that. We all want unique things that we can call our own, and there are times that we have an idea and we want to design something and it’s not always feasible for us to even prototype it ourselves, but that’s changing.
SE: Do you see that 3D printing in the home will take off in a big way, or is it more likely to occur in shops or in shopping centres or in particular places for enterprise like a data centre or a 3D printing hub?
GR: I’m seeing both. I think for smaller form factor things, there are 3D printers on the market that are tabletop and are somewhat compact. Obviously, they’re going to be limited in the size of the objects that they can print because they are not the big industrial ones. I think, depending on what it is, a piece of furniture is obviously going to be more out of a shop versus something that you need to just generally consume — if you want a vase, you can do those in the tabletop ones.
SE: I suppose it would also depend on how frequently a consumer would want to have a new vase or dish or something else, whether they’d even consider buying the 3D printer or just going someplace where they could get their customised version of whatever is on their wish list.
GR: Right, right. I think the best application of 3D printing at the home is at Christmastime because it’s the hardest thing to come up with the most unique gift.
SE: Yes, so you buy it for your once-a-year print.
GR: Yes, there you go.
SE: Do you see a crossover between these consumer trends and things that are used in the enterprise as well? Is there a need for an enterprise, let’s say, that’s not a manufacturer to have a 3D printer?
GR: You know, what’s happened with consumerisation crossing into the enterprise, the best example of that is what we call Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), and that’s where everybody really wants to choose their own mobile phone device, tablet, computer. They don’t want the Windows; they want the Mac, and it is about what the individual feels makes them unique, different, and most productive.
I do think that the 3D printing aspect and just this consumerisation, customisation, that there will be more and more of drive for that inside the enterprise. If you were one of my customers and you want all of your chassis in bright blue, and you want your data centre to be all bright blue, who am I to say it should be printed in steel gun metal grey? I think that’s where we’re going to start to see this in the enterprise. And, Apple was well on the verge of that when they came out with those coloured Macs several years ago, right?
SE: Yes, the iMacs.
GR: Yes, bringing the colour to it and you pick your colour. I think that’s where a lot of that comes from — the consumer wants what they want and they want to design it the way they want. If you think about larger applications, companies might want logo colour equipment only in their data centres.
SE: I guess that might be a bit of a niche.
GR: Could be.
SE: Yes. One other area that I find absolutely fascinating is the use of 3D printing in the healthcare realm, and some of the things that I’ve looked at include even printing of body parts and skin. I’ve seen replacement ears, where rather than putting on a replacement ear that’s made of cartilage that doesn’t look like the ear that you need replaced and the other ear presumably that’s still on the other side of your head, they’re doing scans, let’s say, of old photos and producing an ear that looks just like the old one and functions appropriately. Have you done much investigation in this area, Ginna?
GR: I’ve seen a few things going on in healthcare. There’s quite a bit of buzz here in San Francisco of 3D printing at the DNA level. There’s a lot of research being done out of Stanford and some of the other big institutions on 3D printing cartilage, like hip replacement, knee replacement, cartilage as opposed to going in with plastics or other types of materials that they’re using today.
Healthcare is one of leading industries that’s really taking 3D printing the furthest and the fastest. If you look at where they’re going, the strides that they are making are leaps and bounds ahead of even the manufacturing industry and whatnot. Again, it is that composition of the materials and how it’s printed and how it’s actually applied and built up. The 3D printing of DNA is the most fascinating one I’ve heard about as of most recently.
SE: Tell us a little bit about that one.
GR: That one is really kind of interesting because you basically can get a strand of your DNA tested and in all of our DNA we have markers or indicators of where illness or sickness and the genetics are going to play out, or something that we’ve picked up uniquely in our DNA where we might get sick some day or even get cancer.
This company called Cambrian Genomics in San Francisco actually can take that DNA strand, understand how to make it perfect, understand where all the flaws in the strand are, and it will 3D print for you a brand-new DNA strand that’s perfect.
From that, they think they can solve a lot of today’s illnesses, viruses, genetic issues, cancer issues. Their biggest blocker right now is the only way they can introduce the perfect DNA into your body to repair all the other things is through a virus, so they’re trying to perfect the actual application of getting that perfect DNA strand into the body for consumption that doesn’t require a virus, because that’s where the risk still is in the healthcare industry of introducing anything, any kind of repairable thing.
DNA Consumer Products: Not as Far Out as You Think
SE: Well, that answers the question I was going to ask when you raised the whole question of replacement DNA strand — how do you get it into your body to do anything useful?
GR: Yes. They’re still working on that. You know, they’re making great strides, and who would have thought that you could even print a perfect DNA strand that’s your DNA. That’s pretty individual.
SE: If you had cancer presumably somewhere in the not-too-distant future, you could reprint your DNA cancer free and be cured.
GR: Yes, and that’s what their research is all based upon and how they’re trying to really break some of these other traditional medical barriers on what does the cure to some of these diseases like cancer look like in the future.
SE: And the answer is you just get rid of it at the gene level. Wow.
GR: Yes. It’s pretty fascinating and pretty far out there. I mean, some of this stuff is a little bit of a mind-bending thing to think about and listen to.
SE: What kind of timeframe are they predicting for this?
GR: Well, they’re already printing the DNA, so they’ve got that down. I think what they are really looking for is someone to partner with in order to figure out the best mechanism for application into the body outside a virus. They know they can do it through a virus, but they don’t like the stats and outcomes on that.
SE: We’re looking at something that could maybe be a reality in 10 years’ time.
GR: I think that’s very, very viable. I’m not exactly close to what they think their timeframe is, but I think 10 years would not be too far out.
SE: Wow. Can you imagine how life would change?
GR: I know. It’s fascinating, and it sets up the next generation for a totally different lifespan and what are they going to be faced with in the future.
SE: Yes. Can you imagine how wonderful it would be to have a disease-free life?
GR: Yes. Absolutely.
SE: One of the other healthcare applications that I’ve heard of for 3D printing is having a small 3D printer in your home and literally being able to print whatever medication you need in the exact dosage that you need on demand.
GR: I have not heard that one, but that is fascinating and very much needed, especially for the ageing generations that we have and just all the different medications and how many different crossovers do we have. I imagine there would be some heavy opposition on the regulatory side, but that’s pretty fascinating.
SE: I don’t know of any specific companies doing it, but I have seen in a number of papers that I’ve read speculation that this could be another major healthcare application.
GR: Yes. I think that’s a perfect one, actually, if you think about it, and getting some of the medications and even some of the shortages that they’ve had on some of the medications as well, right?
SE: Yes. Especially if it’s something really small, you don’t need very expensive facilities. You just have to make sure that the 3D printer has the right composites loaded up to be able to print the pill or whatever it may be that you need. I suppose if the DNA printing works, then you won’t have to take medications out anymore.
GR: Well, we would hope so. We hope that one beats out the medication need, right?
SE: Yes. Well, it might be a matter of first you’d get the medication and then you eventually get the cure forever.
GR: Yes, or maybe that’s the method that they can actually deliver the DNA—is in pill form.
SE: Wow. Yes. Using some of these 4D techniques where it activates, let’s say, once it’s inside your body. Wow, that’s interesting.
GR: Maybe we just came up with the next startup.
SE: Well, Ginna. We very well may have. This has been fascinating. Thank you so much for sharing your insights here. I’ll just ask you if you have any other closing comments that you’d like to make.
GR: This has been lovely. It’s been a great conversation. I think there’s a lot of different crossover, and I enjoyed our conversation around your prior research on the robotics and about the crossover of 3D printing and robotics and self-healing factories and where it could all converge. I definitely think there’s more on the horizon.
SE: I think we’re in for a very interesting future. Thank you so much again for your time. We’ll be chatting soon, no doubt. Bye for now.
GR: Thank you.
About the author: Shara Evans is internationally acknowledged as a cutting edge technology futurist, commentator, strategy advisor, keynote speaker and thought leader, as well as the Founder and CEO of Market Clarity.