Timing Isn't Everything, But Almost

Nothing in itself is truly good or bad. It is when you put it to work that matters in the end.

"Perspectives" is a column co-authored by Terry Wohlers. The following was published 
in the May/June 2002 issue of Time-Compression Technologies magazine.

For the past few years, the rapid prototyping industry has had a subdued, almost stagnant, feeling. With moderate growth in the size of the industry and a moderate rate of new product releases, there was no cause for concern, but there also was little to cheer about.

If the EuroMold 2001 trade fair in Frankfurt, Germany, is any indication of what the coming year holds, all of that is about to change. Visitors were rewarded with a first look at a staggering number of new options for rapid product development. Excitement and enthusiasm reached levels that have not been experienced in recent years.

The announcements covered all aspects of RP: new processes, new systems and new materials. And these developments were not limited to established vendors; new companies made their debut at this event.

In light of all that is new, the question suggested is this: Is it the right time to buy one of these new technologies, and which ones will succeed?

Product Life Cycle

One of the key reasons for the overall success of RP is the pressure to decrease time-to-market. The common belief is that being first to market ensures success and being late to market dooms a product to failure.

3D Systems (Valencia, CA) - a provider of rapid prototyping and 3-D printing technology - can attest to the power of being first to market. This company created the RP industry, and it has succeeded, in part, because it was the first to offer RP technology. Yet this does not preclude the success of other RP technologies, nor does it ensure 3D Systems' long-term success.

For most products, the window of opportunity is measured in years, not in days or months. This span of time is best illustrated by the product life cycle. Each industry, technology or product will progress through the discrete phases of the life cycle: introduction, growth, maturity and decline. Opportunity is greatest when a new technology is launched during the introduction or growth phase.

According to Geoffrey Moore, in his books Crossing the Chasm and Inside the Tornado, long-term winners are not defined until an industry reaches a point in the growth stage that he terms "the tornado." The tornado is the phase in the life cycle in which a large number of companies buy into a technology for the first time. It is as the tornado develops that the current market leaders lock in long-term success, and all others are destined to share a small sliver of the market or to throw in the towel.

It has been more than 13 years since 3D Systems introduced the world to rapid prototyping. Yet there is ample opportunity for new companies and new technologies to succeed, because the RP industry has not entered the tornado. This means that each of the new products and companies at EuroMold is granted an opportunity to succeed, and each has the possibility of becoming the market leader.

Risk Taking or Waiting

So, is it time to purchase one of these new technologies? Maybe. The good news is that decisions do not need to be made immediately. Because of the window of opportunity for product release, there is a substantial span of time for the successful implementation of new technology. Yet, this does not imply that there is no risk in moving too soon or too late. Perhaps the most influential factor in the decision should be the consideration of the company's attitude towards risk taking.

With new technology there is an inherent risk in being the first to implement. As with the first model year of a new car, a new technology has no history to demonstrate the quality of the solution. As a result, the first to adopt the new product may be the first to discover the hidden flaws.

The early days of RP were exciting. Like pioneers, those involved in RP were blazing new trails. They also were facing new challenges and obstacles that required effort, time and patience. 3D Systems and others that were a part of the introduction phase were allowed some leeway by the early adopters who understood that there was risk in buying new technology and that effort would be required to make a solution usable.

Today, it is different. The majority of those who seek to adopt RP will not accept an unstable solution.

The challenge that RP vendors face is the delivery of a stable product at the right time. With large investments in R&D and the threat of competitive product launches, there is a strong motivation to release the new technology as soon as possible. Sometimes this translates to the release of a product that is not ready for commercial use. As the RP industry has already experienced, any company that releases a new technology that does not meet users' expectations will face challenges that may ultimately lead to failure.

As the product development community is well aware, the odds of success for a new product are poor. According to Doug Hall, a master of innovation and this year's keynote speaker at RPA/SME's Rapid Prototyping & Manufacturing conference, the odds at the blackjack table in Las Vegas are much better than those for most new products. In his book, Jump Start Your Business Brain, Hall states that it takes 3,000 raw ideas to generate 125 formal projects, and from these projects there will be only a single success.

RP is not immune to these odds. From the current batch of new and established technologies, there will be a few winners and possibly the long-term market leaders. For the majority, the future is not so bright.

The rapid pace of new RP developments has renewed the excitement and enthusiasm. It also has fueled the sense of urgency in evaluating the new technologies to decide if and when they should be implemented.

There are great rewards when risk is accepted. There also is merit in a cautious approach. A winning strategy may be being first to install one of the new technologies announced at EuroMold. On the other hand, success can be had if you take your time to watch the market, evaluate the success of others and investigate a technology that has been working.

Purchasing Considerations

There is not a single right answer for all companies, but there are common considerations that can determine if now is the time to move forward with new technology.

1. The key is to make the decision at the right time. Consideration of the comfort level with risk will often dictate when it is appropriate to take action.

2. Do your homework. Poor research of all of the options is like planting a landmine that is waiting to explode.

3. The time to buy a new system may be right for some but wrong for others. Circumstances and goals vary from organization to organization. Therefore, buying a new technology simply because a competitor did may be the wrong decision.

4. In most cases, it takes years for a sweeping change to occur. What this means is that, in general, new technology does not pose the immediate threat that many perceive.

5. While it can be highly advantageous to be on the bleeding edge, it is safe to be a fast follower. There is little threat in taking the time to let others prove out a new solution and let a technology mature into a stable product.

There will be more new developments and from these there may be a new, best way of doing things. Do you want to blaze the trail or follow the beaten path? Both can be strategies for success or recipes for failure. The key is to choose wisely and to proceed when the time is right.

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