Will 3-D printing ever make it at retail?

May 12, 2016

According to Ovum, the technology research and advisory firm, 3-D printing will have only a limited impact in the retail space, at least over the next 10 years or so.

“3­D printing will grow but only if it can provide genuine benefits, quality outputs and speed at a reasonable cost,” wrote Ovum in its new report, The Future of E­commerce: The Road to 2026. “However, even if 3­D printing does manage to deliver on all these parameters, it will still have a limited role in mainstream retailing.”

One area where 3-D printing may have an impact is in highly personalized products such as gifts.

Still, the report noted that another option for making tailored, personalized products, mass customization, takes advantage of scale to bring down costs. Ovum wrote of mass customization, “This is clearly a lot easier in principle than in practice, but it has been implemented in several industries, notably in the apparel and automotive sectors.”

At the same time, not all consumers will want highly personalized products “due to questions of agency and concerns over data privacy.”

3-D printing might also become useful in producing spare parts for more complex products, such as cars and motorbikes. Ovum added, however, “For more simple items, such as DIY goods, like screws and hammers, the cost is already so low that the benefit of production via 3-D printing would be minimal.”

The report does see a stronger role for community-run 3-D fabrication shops, which it sees tying into the “collaborative consumption” trend of sharing or renting, such as Airbnb.

Do you see opportunities for 3-D printing at retail over the next 10 years? When, if at all, do you see 3-D printing overcoming cost and speed issues to make an abundance of everyday products?

"Glad to see the light of reality shed on this subject. 3-D printing is not the panacea that unknowing writers have made it out to be."
"I’m not sure that I agree with Ovum’s assessment that simple items are so low-cost to produce that 3-D printing them is not worth it."
"Fearless prediction: we’ll be having this same conversation in ten years."

Join the Discussion!

11 Comments on "Will 3-D printing ever make it at retail?"

Notify of

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Ken Lonyai

Glad to see the light of reality shed on this subject. 3-D printing is not the panacea that unknowing writers have made it out to be. As a former manufacturing engineer that worked in high production and precision manufacturing environments, the hype of 3-D printing has never aligned with its reality, particularly in retail. Ultimately, it’s a niche technology that will not gain significant market share as compared with automated techniques.

So yeah, at retail, if someone wants to create a decorator or novelty item, possibly a spare part (when an expensive industrial grader printer is there), sure, there’s a market. However, no retailer is going to have it as a staple of the balance sheet. It will be another small source of revenue like light bulbs or shoelaces, but it will not transform or save any physical retailer that doesn’t have a good USP.

Nikki Baird
I’m not sure that I agree with Ovum’s assessment that simple items are so low-cost to produce that 3-D printing them is not worth it. I have certainly been in situations personally where I needed one stupid o-ring or one screw of this specific size in order to finish a home improvement or repair, and you bet I’d pay a heck of a lot more than they’re worth if I could have them 3-D printed at home rather than having to get in my car, drive to Home Depot, find the item I need, pay for it, then drive back home — only to find I got the wrong size and need to go back. How much would any consumer be willing to pay to avoid that outcome? A lot more than the dollar they paid for 10 screws of the wrong size. If you’re thinking about 3-D printing as a substitution for a mass manufacturing process, where giant 3-D printers live in giant manufacturing facilities, to ship goods to consumers through a network of distribution centers and stores, you’re thinking about it all wrong. The power of 3-D printing is when it lives in the store or in the consumer’s… Read more »
Ian Percy

For general retail there is an opportunity for 3-D but it will be stalled in the novelty or cool category. For “one-off” consumer items this technology is brilliant. And the capability to produce intricate, multi-part printing in one swoop is breathtaking. Those who want to sound sophisticated call it “digital fabrication.” Here’s an excellent article looking at the whole picture.

But I’ve been looking at this for some time hoping 3-D will be helpful in producing a consumer product of mine. So far it’s been very discouraging. The main deterrent is that the volume factor has very little influence as far as cost goes. I can have this particular part machined in hard-anodized aluminum by the thousands for about 25 percent cheaper and much faster than having it digitally fabricated in some kind of plastic.

As I see it the biggest challenge is volume and speed. If you need a small gear wheel for the window crank of a ’57 Chevy then 3-D is for you. On a personal note, if there are RetailWire readers who have expertise in this technology I’d love to connect.

Karen McNeely

There are already 3-D printed products being sold in the marketplace. What I’ve seen primarily is jewelry, which is mostly a novelty and I don’t suspect it will become a huge industry.

But it seems he is suggesting that the opportunity is to provide 3-D printing as a service versus product that is sold as a commodity. Perhaps if we combine two discussion questions for today this is an opportunity for Office Depot and/or Staples to offer a service that would differentiate themselves from Amazon and make their brick-and-mortar stores more relevant.

Dave Wendland

At this early stage of 3-D printing, I do foresee only “novelty” or one-off applications. However, I’m a firm believer that technology evolves quickly as consumer demand is identified.

If we think that customization and personalization defines the future of retail, then 3-D printing becomes justifiable and necessary. I’m not going to dismiss its application out of hand and I think its affordability, speed, and capabilities may be game changers at retail in the not-too-distant future.

Operationally, I think 3-D printing has more immediate applications. Imagine on-demand printing of replacement parts for in-store fixtures. Or developing merchandising aids and other accessories on the fly. Seems this could fill a gap in today’s less-than-efficient process.

Ralph Jacobson

Will 3-D printing make it in retail? Will RFID? Will wearables? Yes, when they become an essential, value-add to our lives, rather than a novelty. When that value comes, mass adoption and competition will drive down costs.

Craig Sundstrom

Opportunities? Sure. “Game Changing” transformations of the retail sector? No. I think many of the people making predictions of the latter — that one day you’re going to print your office furniture, or something like that — don’t have much concept of what #3-D actually is; or just how efficient modern industry is at mass producing things. Hopefully this report — and one like it filled with actual data — will bring some (much needed) rationality to the discussion.

Ken Morris
3-D printing may one day have an impact on retail, but it won’t be for quite some time. Today, 3-D printing is like RFID was 10 years ago — innovative technology looking for a home. While the concept is intriguing, developing custom one-of-a-kind products on the fly is not ready for prime time retail, as the current 3-D printing technology, costs, and ease of use all need to be dramatically improved. It is still pretty expensive to purchase a professional quality printer and to pump out enough products to make a profit will be a challenge. Other drawbacks include: Staffing and training costs – 3-D printers will require additional training for associates and you need to have someone operate the printer Slow speed – Most of the 3-D printers do not create products very quickly and consumers have little patience to watch and wait for the product What type of products truly fit the technology Back in November 2013, McDonald’s said it wanted a 3-D printer in every restaurant so they could print happy meal characters based on customer requests. Two and a half years later, I don’t think they are doing this in any restaurant, as it isn’t cost or… Read more »
Cathy Hotka

Fearless prediction: we’ll be having this same conversation in ten years.

Kim Garretson
Kim Garretson
1 year 5 months ago

I’d like to stretch our thinking beyond novelties with 3-D printing, and think about the “retailization” of healthcare products. This is something we’re seeing now that the dreary and dusty shops in hospitals and non-prime locations are making way for flashy stores to get your gear. What all can be customized with 3-D printing in these stores? Hearing assist products? Prosthetics of course. Special eyeglass frames and other vision related products. Custom shoes or inserts? Other?

Dan Frechtling

There have been lots of good comments about the forces holding back 3D printing from retail success. Another limiter is litigation and liability.

Take health-related products, suggested previously. Who is responsible for a 3D-printed insole that causes a foot injury? or a wrist guard that causes a hand injury? Was it the design, materials, printer, instructions, training, operator, or something else? The finger-pointing would be endless and the first lawsuit would cause a chill at retail.

Now take that replacement part for a ’57 Chevy mentioned above. A window crank is one thing; a brakepad, or gascap is another. What if there were an accident? What if the design was from Japan and materials were from Mexico, and the accident was in the US? Who takes responsibility for a deficient product and which jurisdiction’s laws apply?

Retail will avoid categories with liability. Apparel, novelty and collectible items are so much simpler.

"Glad to see the light of reality shed on this subject. 3-D printing is not the panacea that unknowing writers have made it out to be."
"I’m not sure that I agree with Ovum’s assessment that simple items are so low-cost to produce that 3-D printing them is not worth it."
"Fearless prediction: we’ll be having this same conversation in ten years."

Take Our Instant Poll

What’s the likelihood that 3-D printing will become viable at retail over the next 10 years?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...