I remember it like it was yesterday, but it was over 20 years ago.  While I was in graduate school I saw one of the first 3-D printers, building plastic models.  It was very interesting but terribly slow and expensive.  Even just a few years ago when my consulting firm acquired several 3-D printers, they seemed like interesting novelties, and allowed us to create some basic rapid prototypes.  My how things are changing.

Perhaps you've seen the 3-D printed houses that have been on social media.  During my recent trip to Kuala Lumpur I met with a senior GE executive who told me GE has the capability to 3-D print every component of an aircraft engine.  We are rapidly entering an era when 3-D printing will no longer be the exception, it will be the norm, even for very complex products.  When that happens, what happens to work as we know it?  More importantly, what work remains valuable and can't be reduced to automation?

Where we add value

As automation, 3-D printing and other solutions emerge, jobs will shift or disappear.  In any setting, what can get automated will be automated, and what can be commoditized will become a commodity.  Here's what every entrepreneur and innovator must consider:  where can I add extraordinary value that can't be automated or replaced?  Or, if work is automated or done by robots or AI, what opportunities will emerge that are currently unfilled?

When I lecture college students I tell them the best career opportunity is in innovation, because at least for the foreseeable future machines won't become creative.  AI, robotics and automation will replace a lot of manual work, and will do so faster than we may think possible, but they won't replace the intuition and creativity of the human mind.  In this regard, you must add value through creativity, solving complex challenges that include factors like customer experience, or integrating point solutions into more holistic solutions.

What we should learn

There are a number of things innovators and entrepreneurs can learn from this example of a 3-D printed house.  First, some technologies take longer than you might expect to blossom, but given time many of these technologies will transform the sectors they were originally intended to change, and others as well.  As an example, when 3-D printing was developed, no one was thinking about 3-D printing a house.  Second, there's a difference between a house and a home.  While you may be able to 3-D print a house, the layout and dimensions will be somewhat subject to the printing device, and the house will be sterile.  It will be human design and creativity that makes the house compelling, that makes it a home.

Third, creativity, insight and speed are the new competitive advantages.  If you can combine real insight about the future and package your insights with creativity, and move the solutions you envision to market quickly, and then be prepared to iterate on your success, you'll build a model that cannot fail.  We don't need to fear emerging technologies, we need to embrace them, accelerate them, and apply our creativity to their outputs, to create real value.  But at the same time, don't get left behind.  3-D printed houses may seem like a novelty now, but they'll be reality shortly.  Technology is evolving faster than ever.  You need to be ahead of the curve, understanding the available value space, moving faster and with greater creativity and insight than ever before.

Published on: Mar 26, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.