Editor's Note: Is 3-D Printing for Retail for Real?
I have a confession: I think I'm a believer in 3-D printing as a viable option for retailers.
It wasn't until this past June, when I attended a session on the intersection of fashion and technology at CEWeek in New York City, that I became a convert. Prior to sitting in on that session at CEWeek, I knew little about 3-D printing — and what I thought I knew now seems out of touch with reality.
Duann Scott, the founder and designer evangelist at New York City-based Shapeways, a 3-D printing marketplace and community, discussed how his company enables users to upload 3-D designs and then sell those designs online. Customers can choose to make their designs from a variety of materials, including nylon, plastic, ceramic or metal, and they also have the ability to customize or personalize their products. Shapeways prints the objects in its factories and mails them to the customer. It also tells designers how much it will cost to make their products, and then they can mark them up as much as they want. Merchandise available on Shapeways' site includes bags, belts, wallets, gadgets, games, jewelry, among other items.
The site also features the N12 bikini, the world's first ready-to-wear, completely 3-D printed article of clothing. All of the pieces, closures included, are made directly by 3-D printing and snap together without any sewing. (N12 is named for the material it's made out of: Nylon 12.)
What won me over was when Scott described how 3-D printing allows users to "bury the textile and, as a result, change the whole way the structure of the garment will work and how it will fit the body." As a result, Scott said, "you can make an item exactly fit one person and there's no additional cost for that customization. There's so much potential that hasn't been tapped into yet." 3-D printing also allows everything to be fabricated on-demand, Scott said. There's no minimum order run, and supply exactly meets demand. If you have an order for six units of a product, for example, you can print just six; if you have an order for 6,000, then you can print 6,000. "There's no need for inventory, no excess stock, none of last year's line you need to sell at a discount," Scott said.
Scott also talked about how 3-D printing can change the apparel industry's supply chain. "Instead of a sweatshop worker sewing a garment together, someone can make personalized, customized items sitting in front of their computer writing code," he said. "This will drive better design."
All of Scott's points rang true for me. While it's still obviously in its infancy, 3-D printing is on a fast track. And even if it doesn't eventually replace the apparel manufacturer supply chain, it's something worth looking into. Perhaps some parts of the technology can be used to increase speed or customization for traditional manufacturers, for example.
What do you think about 3-D printing in the fashion and retail space? Let me know by dropping me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks!