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Research · Ning Su

The future in 3D

May 1, 2017

People Examining Object

"I’d like an evening gown that fits me perfectly and reflects my active lifestyle, and it has to be on trend with this year’s Met Gala."

"Definitely, our algorithms can design and print that up for you. Please step into the 3D scanner."

This could be a conversation in the not-so-distant future, says Associate Professor Ning Su, talking about 3D printing technology, also referred to as additive manufacturing. The 3D printing process creates three dimensional solid objects from digital files. Instead of printing the output on paper, a 3D printer constructs physical objects, layer by layer, from diverse materials, to create the model. When combined with other innovations such as artificial intelligence and big data, 3D printed fashion can push the boundaries of beauty and creativity.

Su’s research centres around the transformation of organizations in the age of digitalization and globalization. He also studies how organizations can leverage strategic sourcing to create innovative technologies and business models. The impact on business of 3D printing is one of his specific research projects.

"You can see the transformation [impacted by digital technologies] taking place in different countries and industries, from financial services to technologies, manufacturing and the arts."

Haute couture is a great example because "It’s an industry that emphasizes hand-crafted garments. But even that industry is changed by technology such as 3D printing and big data." In fact, Su met with leading designers in New York who have been experimenting with 3D printing in their work. Some current benefits include highly innovative design, efficient creation and production with easily recyclable pieces and end products resulting in less waste.

3D printing applications for a wide range of uses
Many other industries are also already researching and experimenting with 3D printing applications. A few examples are:

  • Real estate and disaster relief: The real estate industry is already looking at ways to use this technology to build houses. Su says China has been investing in this technology. "The country is hit by many natural disasters and 3D printing could allow communities to print high-quality, temporary shelters or houses in a relatively short period of time." They can then be recycled when no longer needed.
  • Health and medicine: "3D printing would allow doctors and medical students to print prototypes or models of human organs, even customize the parameters of each model, so they can train on these models before going into surgery," says Su. Research is already underway for 3D bio-printing, to engineer actual tissues potentially suitable for transplant patients.
  • Education and training: In addition to health and medicine, education sectors could use 3D printing for learning. For example, design schools could use 3D printing to create objects for hands-on observation and training. Some companies are partnering with schools from grades K-12, colleges and universities to help them bring their ideas to life and empower innovation.

A new era for business-consumer relationship
"3D printing can potentially lead to the age of mass customization where each individual customer can be more extensively and deeply involved in the design and production process."

For example, you can design your own furniture or car by sending your own personal design specifications to companies who will print them. The result is that "you, as a customer, would have a more critical role in the production and design process; that changes the relationship between customers and the producers."

Transformation of business models
"It renders the traditional way of doing business or running organizations obsolete," observes Su, who refers to this as a disruption of a business model that consumers have become accustomed to.

To explain this, he refers to what he calls, "a textbook example" -- Netflix. The original Netflix business model was based on mail order DVD rentals. This disrupted Blockbuster’s model of renting DVDs from a store, rendering the storefront model obsolete. Netflix then offered free access to movies online, further shaping global media distribution.

"When Netflix launched House of Cards, that was another wave of disruption," says Su. Now Netflix became its own show producer, disrupting the TV and film industries.

At this point 3D printing is at a stage where it is just starting to support or enable a new or different model of designing and creating products. But, "if that model becomes successful, it can make the traditional models of manufacturing and design obsolete as well," at least for some product categories, adds Su.

Another impact of 3D printing would be social and environmental. "I think 3D printing can allow people to recycle the material. That, in turn, can reduce the impact on the environment and contribute to sustainability."


Su, 35, ranked on this year’s prestigious Poets & Quants – The 40 Most Outstanding MBA Professors Under 40. From a large pool of professors, each candidate was evaluated by Poets & Quants based on the quality of his or her scholarly research, the impact of scholarship as measured by publication in academic journals and media, and the ability to teach. With an unprecedented number of nominations, Professor Su broke the previous record set by a Harvard Business School professor in 2016. Other award recipients include professors from major schools such as Harvard, MIT, Cornell, Yale, NYU, Stanford, Toronto, McGill, and London Business School.