BrainTrust Query: Will 3D Printing Bring Boon or Bust to Retailers?

Discussion
Mar 14, 2013

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is an excerpt from a current article from Insight-Driven Retailing Blog.

Getting to affordable same-day or next-day delivery will be an important milestone for the retail industry, and we’re already making progress in that direction with "shipping clubs" and local delivery services. But what if there were a way to skip the delivery process altogether, much like what we’ve done with digital content? I don’t order music CDs or DVDs from websites anymore; I simply download the content.

3D printing has the potential to change the way we manufacture and deliver physical products. The use of the word "printer" implies ink and paper, but 3D printers use drops of different materials to create objects one layer at a time. Traditional manufacturing converts a block of material into a product by carving the shape. 3D printing, however, is additive. Instead of removing excess material in a particular shape, it builds the product by spitting out material in layers.

A leading company in this field is Geomagic, which was recently acquired by 3D Systems. Its founder, Ping Fu, recently spoke at SXSW while wearing shoes designed by Janne Kyttanen that were created by a 3D printer. (As you can see in the picture, these shoes include an iPhone holster as well.)

At the event held on Mar. 12, examples of wearable technology were on display, including, according to a statement, "amazing clothes: face masks that are a perfect fit using 3D scanning, 3D printed shoes, clothes that display carefully designed lighting as art and ‘print’ words from Twitter and other sources interactively on the fabric."

In the not too distant future, 3D printers could be commonplace in households. Prices are projected to drop to under $1,500 this year and possibly as low as $500 in three years. I can imagine a new category of commerce where products are selected online and printed either in the home or a nearby store. These products can be easily personalized, have almost no supply chain overhead, and can be delivered quickly.

But that brings up some interesting issues as well. Can the product be returned? Can products be easily pirated? If a product is found to be defective, does the fault lie with the designer, seller, or printer?

On-demand commerce could soon escape the digital world and infiltrate the physical world. Which retailers will be ready?

What do you think of the potential of 3D printing? Is it more of a threat or an opportunity for retailers? What’s the key to consumer adoption?

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20 Comments on "BrainTrust Query: Will 3D Printing Bring Boon or Bust to Retailers?"

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Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust
3D printing is the latest overhyped technology—if not the most overhyped ever to catch the media’s attention. I grin at how many reporters with no manufacturing experience or understanding write “expert” articles on this subject. Being a former manufacturing engineer that has designed both products and the tooling to produce them, I feel well placed to evaluate the technology for what it is: a semi-useful tool that will not substantially change manufacturing or retail. Developing technology is what I do now and clearly I realize that there’s a lot of innovation to come in 3D printing, but there is so much that it cannot address. For example: I never see the term “strength of materials” mentioned in any 3D article, yet every engineer in the world has taken courses in the subject and understand what it means. Finish, clarity, transitiveness, conductiveness, resilience, range of materials, on and on are design/engineering constructs that these basic devices will likely never be capable of addressing. So yes, for knocking out low quantity (quality?) consumer grade “stuff” there will be a place for 3D printing, but no factories in China are worried about it. On the positive side: As a teaching device to inspire… Read more »
Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

Overall, I think 3D printing is going to disrupt the retail eco-system yet again. In my mind it’s another one of those “I never saw that one coming” things. A price point of $1500? Or $500? So soon?

On the one hand, it’s a bit like trying to quantify the threat of patterns and sewing machines on the apparel industry (not much), but there are categories it will likely decimate. Like, if I were Crocs, I might worry about this. The TSA—serious issues with plastic guns. Other categories, not so much.

Max Goldberg
BrainTrust

The key to consumer adoption will be price, accuracy and the ability to use the technology across a wide variety of products. This is another step in the process of creating seamless customer experiences. Retailers will offer consumers the option to shop in store, online or on demand. Selection and customer service will be the hubs, with customers being able to choose the method and timing of delivery.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

Since this type of printing/manufacturing has actually been around in basic form since the 1970s, several industries have utilized this technology. CPG has joined the fray with footwear, jewelry and other segments.

The first step to gain public consumer adoption is to create awareness. Although this has been around a while, few consumers know about it. There is a potential “coolness” factor that could be leveraged by both retail and CPG in their promotions. Customization could be a big draw.

W. Frank Dell II
BrainTrust

As with online sales, some products do not lend themselves well for a number of reasons, and the same will be true for 3D printing.

At this time it is very, very early in the development process. It is likely that different compounds will evolve for making different products. For printing at home, the user would need the correct compound which could be an issue.

The greatest potential will be in printing broken parts. For example, a hose connection that breaks could be replaced easily with this technology. The question will be, is it cheaper to print or go to the store?

Zel Bianco
BrainTrust

As technology pushes us forward, it’s only natural to explore what other mediums can be included and apparel seems like an interesting fit. I would want to understand durability and how exactly the printing process works.

I don’t think retailers should see this as a threat; more like manufacturing companies that are going to have to compete and produce. It’s definitely an opportunity for retailers, and a great one if they move quickly. However, I do not see consumers throwing out sewn garments just yet. It will definitely be a novelty and items will sell because of the “cool” factor, but it would have to show significant reduction in cost, waste, equal or superior quality, and a host of other attributes to give it a leg up in the fashion industry.

Kurt Seemar
Guest
Kurt Seemar
4 years 7 months ago

The time for the retailers to worry about this technology is quite a bit down the road. As the first poster Ken Lonyai already pointed out, the quality of printed products is currently quite low. In another decade or two perhaps the technology will have evolved to the point where quality is no longer an issue. That is about as long as it took for digital cameras to make film obsolete.

Nikki Baird
BrainTrust

To Ken’s point, the biggest threat, to me, comes to Lego. My son will be in 6th grade next year and their “shop” lab is no shop you’d recognize —it has a 3D printer in it, among other gadgets that I’m amazed anyone will support the liability for 6th graders to handle them. And one of the first things he thought of when he saw it was that he could design his own custom Lego pieces, which seems like a perfect application of 3D printing technology.

I think it will disrupt industries based on simple materials, but until we invent matter converters a la Star Trek, so that they sit in our kitchens like Mr. Coffees, most of the retail (and consumer products) industry has nothing to worry about. Clothing, jewelry, toys, and simple furniture will shift to something where the design is everything, the material a commodity—and even shipping will be relatively unimpacted, because you still have to get raw materials and deliver the printing machine to begin with. But we’re a long way away from, say, printing a watch at home. Oh wait—watches have been rendered obsolete by smartphones. Make that “printing your next smartphone at home.” 🙂

Ed Dunn
Guest
4 years 7 months ago

I remember the Mold-O-Rama machines created in the 1950s to crank out injection mold toys for kids at the space museum or natural history museum. I find a more modernized Mold-o-Rama would be more impressive than 3D printer for retailers.

3D printers may advance the ability to design items such as sandals in the USA and offshore the manufacturing, not exactly the positive kind of impact the creators of 3D printers may have had in mind.

Edward Li
Guest
Edward Li
4 years 7 months ago

I’m with Ken. The essential difference between a consumer-oriented traditional printer and a 3D printer is the material. You can print anything on a same piece of paper, but you can’t produce two different usable items with the same supply of materials. Even if you could, imagine you open a closet full of clothes made in the same kind of fabric—10 layers to make a winter coat with buttons made of two dozen layers, and a spring dress made of 5 layers of the same material? 3D printing is great for design and modeling, but way too early to say there is any implication to manufacturing or retailing.

Matthew Keylock
Guest
Matthew Keylock
4 years 7 months ago

3D printing is certainly interesting, and I have watched them at work in fascination and awe. However, it strikes me the opportunities are more in rapid proto-typing and a few niche areas than a broader assualt on retail-as-we-know-it.

Maybe some retail sectors and brands could be impacted by a new cottage-industry of home-based businesses that are catalysed by access to prototyping that makes the step towards manufacturing a little easier? Maybe in some areas the innovation chain could shrink rapidly and ideas could be more crowd-sourced?

Either way the access to customer that retailers provide will remain important. I believe it is more critical that retailers focus on remaining a relevant destination.

Lee Kent
BrainTrust

There are a lot of kinks to be worked out but yes, I do see this having an impact on retail. Not sure how big, but some category will be a perfect fit and voila, disruption! The key to consumer adoption is price, process, and service fulfillment.

Ed Dennis
Guest
Ed Dennis
4 years 7 months ago
Well, we all saw Spock, Bones, Scotty, and Kirk use the replicator to do everything from provide food to make weapons. We saw them create artificial worlds on the holo-deck. I guess it’s all coming true and the 3D printer is just a first stage replicator. Like all things electric, products will improve and prices will come down. Maybe the best long term investment would be carbon and silicon. Almost all of our needs can be supplied using these raw materials. I think the future of retail is somewhat service oriented. All things of substance will eventually be supplied by the cloud and our “public spaces” will be populated by service providers. If you are into things, then retail won’t be your haunt. Retail will be reserved for hair, nails, social food, beverage and entertainment. Things will be the province of the replicator. Imagine building a teleportation device by having the parts delivered via the replicator and assembled by your house bot. As always, adoption will depend on the value equation. Early adopters will pay high prices for the technology and derive few rewards. As the value proposition increases, adoption will become broad and functionality will broaden geometrically. Invest now,… Read more »
Adrian Weidmann
BrainTrust

3D printing will definitely open new frontiers and business opportunities for entrepreneurs. Additionally, this technology will further flatten the world allowing global opportunity for artisans and and inventors.

The digital delivery of ‘product files’ will require the same attention to detail and encryption processes that has been accepted and implemented by the digital cinema industry. This could be a fantastic business opportunity for someone like FedEx for their existing infrastructure of ‘brick ‘n mortar’ print and copy shops.

Ed Rosenbaum
BrainTrust

And to think many of us thought Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone was comic relief. This is technology that has yet to prove its value.

Tom Redd
Guest

This is a another very standard, non-retail technology that some people are pushing into our world. It is an official “Retail Hype-Spin-Fade” (HSF) technology.

Soon out we will have 3D Create Stores where you rent time on a printer to make a lego piece or copy a jewelry item. Some of these shops are busted for patent infringement. Why do all these technologies that have a real purpose get shoved into retail, hyped-up, and fade? That is the real question.

OK, back to my TV that I can use to browse mail (another HSF) concept….

Warren Thayer
BrainTrust

I’ve actually seen this equipment used to make parts for machinery in factories, and the people working in the factories absolutely loved them. Easily customized parts for all sorts of functions, for in-house equipment and equipment sold to customers.

You all know I’m not a tech person, so don’t go to the bank on this, but I do see big potential for this in five or ten years, perhaps via companies selling software/apps to consumers so they can use their “printer” to produce specific things. And if I were a retailer, I’d expect to take a hit in certain categories and be thinking about an altered merchandise mix.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

Talk about a(n overly) broad question! What kind of threat/opportunity, and what kind of retailers? Let’s see: restaurants, and in general, food sellers: no. Appliances, cars and anything else that is electrical (or, for that matter, complex): nope. Hardware stores and DIY building supplies: maybe some (for people who want a plastic wrench or 2×4)…in short, it has a rather limited application, and to a very small part of the retail world. Accelerated development of warp-drive and transporter technology, OTOH….

Mike Osorio
Guest
Mike Osorio
4 years 7 months ago

The fact is none of us can predict the level of disruption 3D printing will cause to retailing and manufacturing. What we can predict is that there will be disruptions. Forward-thinking major manufacturers are already researching applications of the technology and I suspect some top retailers are doing the same. No predictions from me—but it will be fun to watch!

Bill James
Guest
Bill James
4 years 7 months ago

It has wonderful potential just like any other technology tool in the right hands of a creative designer, whether that is in a manufacturer, retailer or home owner. Could I see a day where I customize my own shoes online, perhaps at Nike.com and then download the design to be made on a 3D printer? Sure, why not?

Whole industries will emerge whereby you can use simple CAD tools which will be simple and straight forward to use to design what they want and then print it up at home. There are a myriad of ideas that come to mind, home decor, tools, apparel items, toys, artwork, furniture, storage containers—imagine a cookie jar with your kids picture printed right on it—all kinds of options come to the imaginative mind.

The sharp retailers will embrace it and use the technology to drive people into their stores and embrace their brands. Not so smart retailers who don’t will watch how the technology ends up shredding their income statements.

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