The technology that turns digital designs into tangible products -- 3D printing -- is beginning to have an impact on manufacturing, the supply chain, retail and e-commerce across a host of industries. The breadth of creative possibilities can be daunting, as new products become cheaper to bring to market, consumers get to design more of their own custom products, and some brick-and-mortar stores offer walk-in customers tools to create precisely the product they want.
As occurred with social media around 2008, brands know they need to engage with 3D printing, but many aren't sure how or why. Here are some answers to those questions.
First, consider cost. Traditionally, bringing a product to market can take months and thousands of dollars. A company conducts extensive research to define a market need, followed by designing, tooling, focus-group testing, and ultimately mass manufacturing and distribution. To achieve economies of scale, a minimum of 10,000 products is made, though usually runs surpass 100,000 or a million. This requires an inventory, which can also be costly.
With 3D printing, research and development costs are considerably lower. An individual or designer comes up with an idea, develops a 3D design using CAD (computer-assisted design) software and uploads the design to be produced by a 3D service or on a home 3D device. An item marketed on the designer's website, an online 3D marketplace and other venues can be made and sold on demand to customers around the world, eliminating the need for inventory. If the product catches on, it could be manufactured in larger quantities by traditional techniques, if that makes economic sense.
The costs of launching a product using 3D printing are limited to sweat equity, testing of prototypes in different materials and marketing. This lifts the burden of having to be nearly certain of product-market fit beforehand and frees a company to experiment with new or extended product lines, with low capital risk.
The fashion designer Kimberly Ovitz, to take a recent example, debuted her first jewelry line at New York Fashion Week, choosing 3D printing. In a radical departure from the traditional sales process, she made the pieces available for purchase on her website that day, when usually a product line takes about six months to arrive after runway.
In what he called "an experiment on creativity and rapid manufacturing," a designer named Cunicode proved that you could go from idea to product in a day by creating 30 different model coffee cups in 30 days, now for sale online.
From the consumer's standpoint, 3D printing extends the conversation with brands opened by digital and social media to the possible co-creation of products. Nike, Threadless, Levis and others paved the way in recent years by allowing customers to choose among design options for products that were made by traditional manufacturing. With 3D printing apps, a customer can tweak a larger range of parameters within a product template, to choose not just colors or styles, but a unique product.
In the realm of music, SoundCloud and Shapeways recently teamed up to let fans turn their favorite songs into 3D-printed iPhone cases by imprinting the soundwave onto the back of the case. The Creators Project, a collaboration between Vice and Intel, turns your Facebook profile into 3D-printed sculptures, including monsters based on your profile data.
The impact that 3D printing will have on the retail experience is unchartered territory. Imagine if you could walk into an H&M and create a custom purse right then and there? Or if your daughter could design and 3D print accessories for her brand new American Girl doll? Or, if you could order a gift in one airport and have it made on demand and ready for you at your final destination?
Without having to invest in a 3D printer, retailers will be able to give customers a chance at personalizing their purchase by creating customization stations and having products shipped directly to the customer. Brands ready to advance to on-site 3D printing can purchase printers costing between $2,000 to $1 million. Dreambox has unveiled a vending machine for 3D printed products.
As previously occurred with social media, brands early to adopt 3D printing will be in a position to define the market and develop their way to innovation. Will yours be one of them?