We have to know where we’ve been to know where we’re going; such lessons from high school history class are more applicable than they might seem to a teenager as the real world ensures ongoing education for everyone willing to be a student of life. While some may say that those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it, others underscore the importance of this understanding as the basis for a firm foundation upon which to build — while still others are committed to shaking everything up and making history themselves.

Direct lines of communication to those making history can show very different ways of thinking as innovators’ minds make jumps connecting areas that might initially seem disparate but are in fact connections that will shake up the status quo. George Blankenship has had a direct line into some major shakeups in tech over the last few decades, working as an executive at Gap, Apple, and Tesla, directly alongside now-iconic tech visionaries Steve Jobs and Elon Musk.

Now retired from these high-profile executive positions, Blankenship is spending his time these days focused on his own family — and as an independent consultant sharing from his wealth of knowledge. Blankenship presented the keynote at last week’s 3DEXPERIENCE Forum in Hollywood, Florida, sharing his thoughts in a session entitled “The Future of Innovation” before sitting down for an intimate roundtable discussion with a small contingent of media and analysts.

“I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” Blankenship told the gathered crowd during his keynote, as his career encompassed direct work with Jobs and Musk.

Working at Apple in the 1990s, Blankenship was part of a team working to create what would, we know a few decades on, become the new norm in pocket technology. From the first iPod and birth of iTunes to the introduction of the iPhone, bringing these products to market was not easy. The process for Blankenship’s focus on expanding the retail space involved “ambushing” customers where they already went — e.g., shopping malls — to personally introduce the technology. Working closely with Jobs and the Apple team, Blankenship served as the Vice President of Real Estate for the company as it developed and launched the first 165 Apple Retail spaces.

“I give them two years before they’re turning out the lights on a very painful and expensive mistake,” wrote Peter Burrows in 2001

A 2001 Business Week article predicted that the anticipated closure of Apple retail stores would prove to be a “very painful and expensive mistake” in two years. It was the differentiation of positioning, ultimately, that not only spared the stores from closure but led to their being the crowd-spawning bonanza we know today, featuring Genius Bars and mind-boggling lines at any new iRelease.

“From the product end of things, we need to talk about the ownership experience. We needed to deliver a great space, hire great ‘people people’ who wanted to engage every day — then train them well, fire them up, and turn them loose on an unsuspecting public. That’s where most companies stop. But you can’t stop there,” Blankenship said emphatically. “You need to ask: What can we do that will keep customers wanting to come back again and again and again, to develop a long-term customer relationship? We need to let customers know we want them, we are available to help them.”

From Blankenship’s retail-oriented executive perspective, the critical notion here was that relationship that to a customer would feel personal: “With all this change and technology happening, how do you not lose track of the customer?” Important questions need to not only be asked, but have actual answers. For Apple, it was exploring and understanding the changing makeup of the typical customer as Generation X gives way to the millions of Millennials with buying power — Millennials will make up 50% of the US workforce by 2030, he noted, and 80% of this generation sleeps with a cell phone by their bed.

“We need to do this: we need to think this way, the way other people aren’t thinking, do what they’re not doing,” he explained of new approaches to market. “What should you be thinking about today? Look around at what’s going on around you that may not seem connected that you can connect, that can turn into something amazing.”

As an example, he pointed to some high-interest but seemingly-disparate areas in today’s headlines: drones, snacks, and marijuana. What if someone connected these three areas to create drone snack delivery available via app to those hit by the munchies? That’s some out-of-the-box 21st century thinking that could be a surprisingly lucrative business model.

“Sometimes you need to do the impossible,” he said, in bringing ideas together, a common theme seen in his years at Tesla. “Almost everything we did at Tesla was impossible, until we did it. It was the first successful US car company since the 1950s; it’s disruptive because of vertical integration, and bigger-picture updates, not because it’s an electric car.”

“Impossible” achievements that Tesla achieved

Blankenship’s keynote was the kind of fiery inspiration often heard from disruptive businesses, down to ending with “Someone has to innovate; why not you?” — but it was sitting next to him during the afternoon’s roundtable discussion that showed a better look beyond the PowerPoint and fog machines of the keynote session. We each had the opportunity to ask a question of Blankenship, and he entertained our curiosities for more than our 30 allocated minutes, delving into his personal experiences in professional disruption. Blankenship, who left his VP titles behind him in a bid to spend more time with his family, first responded to an inquiry regarding advice for the next generation.

“Work for something that inspires you,” he said without hesitation. “Companies that survive, companies that thrive, have a bigger-picture view. Be inspired by the bigger picture of the company you work for; it doesn’t matter what it is, be sure that it inspires you.”

Looking into his experiences in working with the storied Steve Jobs, Blankenship revealed a different perspective from that popularized in press and in movies. He urged us to, for example, watch the recent movie about Jobs, but to think about it from his perspective: “Not what he was like, but what it was like to be him.” Jobs, who led Apple to the global behemoth it is today, “always had someone telling him he was doing the wrong thing” as he worked to disrupt personal technology.

“People like him, people like Elon — it’s like they’re from a different time and they want to get us all there,” Blankenship told us.

It isn’t easy to be that future-thinker, to be the innovator seemingly ahead of their time and waiting for the rest of the world to catch up to what they already see as possibilities. This led to an important point he made later in our group conversation, as talk turned to the creation of full ecosystems.

“Every step of creating these new ecosystems is hard. Getting real estate [for Apple Retail] was hard. External, internal — every step along the way is hard,” he explained.

“But when you have a leader driven by vision and a team inspired by that vision, incredible things happen. It boils down to the team in place and the conviction of the leader.”

Roundtable discussion, during which I did not know there was a camera out. [Image: Dassault Systèmes North America via Instagram]

Today, we are seeing these visions frequently coming back to the personalization and democratization of technology. These were resounding themes throughout the week of the 3DEXPERIENCE Forum, particularly turning to applications in manufacturing and in healthcare. In these areas, digital technologies including 3D printing often contribute to the democratization and expansion of reach of these technologies. As 3D printers make hardware more accessible, and as software is integrated into more solutions, we are seeing new ideas in business emerge.

“Software is a big focus, and will need to go along with accessible hardware,” Blankenship said. “Venture capitalists are looking for something different that is not out there today — new hardware that is not out there today, powered by new software. Look at Uber: is that hardware or software? VCs are looking for that idea so unique it doesn’t need a category.”

Building on accessibility and reach, I asked Blankenship for his broad thoughts on 3D printing in today’s world.

“I saw the 3D printed office in Dubai; I thought it fell a little short. It was this fully 3D printed building with purchased furniture inside,” he said of the office building that opened in 2016 and was furnished by Bene.

“There’s now someone 3D printing a car, someone 3D printing aligners for your teeth, 3D printing hearing aids. You just start thinking of all the applications, all of the materials science, and you see how this is democratizing for large and small companies and applications, from cars to aligners and everything else along the way.”

This democratization is opening doors in these and many more applications. Blankenship mentioned Local Motors’ ongoing work in 3D printing cars, 3D printed aligners from Invisalign, and hearing aids as especially disruptive already, and we’re seeing these advances take off with more 3D printing in automotive uses, homemade 3D printed aligners, and next-generation titanium hearing aids — as well as, of course, myriad applications outside these few areas.

Through the remainder of our discussion time, Blankenship shared thoughts on ease of use — “If you’re developing something that needs an instruction manual, you’re going in the wrong direction” — and the realistic expectation of a broad transition from a products to a services mindset — “General counsel is typically risk-averse; as long as there’s that mindset, it’s tough for an established company to do something wonderful.”

George Blankenship

Talking with Blankenship underscored a few major themes we frequently see as the nascent Industry 4.0 leads to rising adoption of digital technologies, 3D printing, and more advanced techniques in digitization and manufacturing coming into play around the world. His thoughts on leadership and innovation reinforce what we frequently see among thought leaders as a vision must be in place before any true innovative progress can be made. While “game-changing” and “disruption” are over-used terms especially surrounding 3D printing, these must remain the goals for any individual, for any company to truly hope to make waves and establish a place in leading that next revolution.

The 3DEXPERIENCE Forum, hosted by Dassault Systèmes, provided a unique gathering place for leaders in thought and technology to come together, allowing for interesting discussions into topics ranging from 3D printing to assist in the medical arena to simulated human anatomy.

How do you see 3D printing playing into business disruption? Let us know your thoughts at 3DPrintBoard.com, or share your thoughts in the Facebook comments below.

[All photos: Sarah Goehrke]

 

 

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