How 3D printing will change retailing

Post originally appeared in Retailing Today

March 10, 2014 | By Deborah Weinswig

The buzz and hype surrounding 3D printing can make it hard to separate fact from fiction, but one thing is for sure: 3D printing has the potential to transform shopper expectations and retail supply chains.

Begin with the premise that in world where 3D printers and their amazing capabilities are commonplace do consumers even need a retailer such as Amazon in certain categories? It’s not as crazy as it sounds considering 3D printers are quickly giving potential Amazon customers that ability to make products for one third the price while also experiencing the pride of creating something.

Amazon wants customers to believe it is needed in a 3D printer world, rather ironically, to buy products that have been printed on a 3D printer. The nation’s leading online retailer has launched a new division selling products printed on 3D printers that includes a partnership with 3DLT. The feeling is that the marketplace for items printed on 3D printers could potentially be larger than just the resin/filament (the 3D equivalent of ink and toner) and the printers themselves.

This creates some interesting new dynamics for the retail industry. Consider the situation with RadioShack, a company that just announced plans to close 1,100 stores and faces considerable skepticism regarding its long-term viability. However, RadioShack is focused on the 3D printing category and the traffic generating potential it represents. Shoppers will no longer have to wait to get something when they can make it in their office, kitchen, garage or at Radio Shack. Or any other retailer ready to capitalize on a technology that is quickly becoming less expensive and more user friendly.

Office superstores, with their focus on entrepreneurs and small businesses, have the potential to benefit from this trend, as does any retailer who recognizes the tremendous “retailtainment” potential that offering in-store 3D printing services affords.

Consumers want theater and entertainment in the shopping experience and 3D printing offers it in spades, which is why the rumblings about the new technology that began a year ago are growing louder.
Everyone from the stay-at home mom who makes a few pair of earrings to the high end couture fashion designer could be revolutionized by one simple device that is poised to become mainstream.

As it does so, 3D printing will turn the supply chain upside down as consumers create everything from fashion jewelry to toys in the comfort of their own homes and personalize each and every item that they make. In this age of democratized luxury, who doesn’t love personalization? Instead of ordering something online, convenience will be represented by consumers making something at home in a matter of hours and they will have the DIY satisfaction as well. They will no longer have to settle for something that is kind of what they want, they can get exactly what they want.

The key development that will unleash a torrent of demand for 3D printed products is the fact that this past January one the central patents controlling production of a specific type of 3D printer expired. This patent related to selective laser sintering (SLS), a form of additive manufacturing that offers some significant advantages over other techniques. While plastics is currently the largest material, metal is expected to have the largest future growth as the opportunities for 3D printing move beyond the hobbyist and DIY-er.

Other recent developments suggest change is the space is accelerating. In June 2013, a defining moment for the industry, 3D manufacturer Makerbot was purchased by 3D leader Stratasys for $604 million. This past January, Makerbot announced a distribution and sales agreement with Micro Center stores which expanded Makerbot’s retail presence to 25 Micro Center store located in 16 states.  These stores will sell the entire line of Makerbot products. Makerbot is already in all 48 Microsoft retail locations.
Big box retailers have yet to get into this in a big way, but it is only a matter of time as growth of the category attracts the likes of Walmart, Target, Costco, Home Depot and others eager for traffic and sales.

Many retailers are still looking to optimize their online presence and develop stronger mobile capabilities to deliver a seamless shopping experience to customers. These efforts are essential which is why virtually every company is devoting a larger portion of their capital expenditures to anything related to digital nearly 20 years after Amazon was founded. Retailers in the late 90s who dawdled while the Internet grew increasingly popular would be wise not to make the same mistake twice. Embrace 3D printing, learn all you can and understand how this amazing technology can allow you to more effectively serve customers and impact your supply chain.

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