5 Ways That 3-D Printing is Going to Shake Up Retail
Make no mistake about it: 3-D printing will be a huge part of the retail industry's future. While Gartner is forecasting that mainstream adoption of consumer 3-D printing is still five years to 10 years away, the retail industry is already feeling the shift. Amazon.com has launched an online store for 3-D printed items, enabling customers to personalize products from wallets to dolls to jewelry. By some predictions, 10 percent of all consumer products will be made using 3-D processes by 2025, and Autodesk foresees half of all households in developed countries owning their own 3-D printer within a decade.
As the founder of a large online retailer and lifelong participant in the industry, I think this shift in producing power and the method by which products are made will transform retailers in five key ways:
1. Cheap and easy-to-print products will see reduction in sales. Perhaps most obvious, retailers selling products that are cheap and easy to print at home (i.e., those that are small, simplistic and made of plastic) will be most vulnerable to the reduction of their market. Retailers selling large and bulky items — and those selling items made of materials more difficult to 3-D print — have less to worry about, and will continue to take advantage of mass-production cost efficiencies to maintain relevance.
2. 3-D printing as a service. Retailers with brick-and-mortar locations will actually be able to take advantage of 3-D printing's rise in the near term by offering 3-D printing as a service. Consumers still waiting for more affordable and higher quality at-home 3-D printing options will be able to access the technology as provided at local stores. Even after common adoption of at-home 3-D printing, retailers will likely play a role in making larger and more powerful 3-D printing machines available (which consumers will use the same way a person today might use a print shop instead of their home printer for larger or special paper print jobs).
3-D printing at retailers that are certified sellers of branded products will provide the advantages of validation — and perhaps offer warranties — for parts and products as well. For example, consider if a consumer prints a replacement part for his washing machine at home, but it turns out to be faulty and ends up causing water damage in his house. Until home machines gain some of the quality control feedback mechanisms that commercial-grade 3-D printers are just getting now, consumers may find it wise to leave those liabilities with retailers and manufacturers.
3. Newer small retail businesses will grow out of 3-D printing's possibilities. Services like Shapeways are already empowering up-and-coming retailers to produce and sell 3-D designed jewelry, accessories, toys and other goods. Inviting users to "turn ideas into products," these services can put made-to-order production and sales capabilities into the hands of artists and designers new to the retail space.
These newcomers and their fresh products should provide excitement and possibly add unpredictable new segments to the marketplace. Alliances between established retailers and these newcomers will be mutually beneficial, amplifying the exposure and availability of new products. In fact, Target recently opened a Shapeways shop that offered exclusive 3-D printed gifts for the 2014 holiday season.
The near future will also see tech-savvy entrepreneurs broadening retail's 3-D printing possibilities. Take, for example, the student at Harvard who has developed a prototype 3-D printer that produces makeup and lets the user choose any color with complete customization. Expect the reach of 3-D printing to spread into unexpected areas as these possibilities come to fruition.
4. Change in retailer supply chains. 3-D-printed products can potentially revolutionize retailers’ supply chains, with products created on-site only after ordered and paid for. This figures to have many indirect advantages, creating additional savings by reducing or eliminating shipping, warehousing, damage in transit, shoplifting, and goods not sold. In many ways, manufacturing is leading the 3-D printing revolution, discovering new efficiencies and even challenging the notion of factories as we know them going forward.
For example, industrial processes involving plastic injection molding have, for decades, been limited by the time it takes for molten plastic to cool before a new batch could begin. But with 3-D-printed molds allowing for the innovation of printing cooling channels into products so that they can be cooled quickly by passing water through them, efficiency is being increased as much as 30 percent. 3-D hubs, connecting whole fleets of distributed 3-D printers and making their production capacity available for rent, stand to act as the factories of the future, making fully scalable local production simple to access. Retailers will then have the option of creating products in-house on a made-to-order basis or using locally available mass production as economy-of-scale costs dictate.
5. Savvy retailers will embrace 3-D printing (and have fun with it). Take, for example, the "Let's Create Pottery" app from Infinite Dreams, which invites users to design pottery and submit their designs to be 3-D printed. Shapeways also holds 3-D printing contests, using them to highlight different focuses of 3-D printing's potential and inviting talent and judges from various creative fields, such as 3-D animators, to participate. The creative communities surrounding these concepts are quick to embrace the fun of retail challenges, not to mention the opportunities. Look for increases in contests and new avenues of exposure for artists and designers of new products, with their creations cross-promoted via established retailers.
Bonus point: "4-D printing," which involves creating programmable matter, is coming too, if not a little further down the road. These will be products designed and made of materials that react and change in response to temperature, pressure and force in their environment. Prototypes of such materials already exist. Imagine shoes that could react to the force of your running by becoming sleek, breathable running shoes, then react to walking on grass by growing cleats and turning waterproof, then reacting to walking to work by becoming dress shoes. Picture shoe retailers adapting to products like these, and all retailers adapting to their counterparts throughout the retail industry, and you begin to see just how different the future of retail might (and likely will) be.
Jon Nordmark is the CEO at Iterate Studio, a digital proof-of-concept lab that discovers and curates emerging technologies, then implements proof tests for an exclusive members-only group of noncompeting retailers.