3D printing, or Additive Manufacturing (AM), is no secret having been developed in the early 1980s, but within the last 5+ years has it been capturing the imagination of a much wider audience than the early adopters who have pioneered the industry. A big reason is that it’s becoming readily apparent it’s a technology that will likely change the face of not only manufacturing, but other industries as well given its ability to facilitate “mass customization”.
“THE industrial revolution of the late 18th century made possible the mass production of goods, thereby creating economies of scale which changed the economy—and society—in ways that nobody could have imagined at the time. Now a new manufacturing technology has emerged which does the opposite. Three-dimensional printing makes it as cheap to create single items as it is to produce thousands and thus undermines economies of scale. It may have as profound an impact on the world as the coming of the factory did….
Just as nobody could have predicted the impact of the steam engine in 1750—or the printing press in 1450, or the transistor in 1950—it is impossible to foresee the long-term impact of 3D printing. But the technology is coming, and it is likely to disrupt every field it touches.”
this is a game changing technology which is a big reason why it’s taking so long, 30+ years, to emerge. Now that 3D printing has been briefly introduced, the remainder of this post will focus on the retail sector and developments there over the last several years.
The focus for retail is not about competing with the 3D printer manufacturers, but concentrating on 3D printing as a service and selling the printers and materials. Leveraging printers from the existing technology providers like Stratasys, 3D Systems, etc., the aim is to be able to print unique and/or custom items that previously would have been too costly to produce a single item or in small batches.
Shapeways was one of, if not, the first companies to emerge to capitalize on this opportunity when it started offering printing as a service in 2008. It is now the largest online marketplace for 3D printed goods. However, things heated up in summer of 2013 when Amazon launched its 3D printing service. Besides bringing its current 250+ million customers and 40+ million Prime members to bear, Amazon has also filed for patents on a system that would use 3D printers installed on trucks to produce an ordered product, bypassing the need for a fulfillment center, so a customers’ order could be delivered more quickly. While several years away, its one more sign that Amazon has no intention of taking its foot off the gas pedal.
More traditional retailers like Home Depot, Micro Center, Sam’s Club, Staples, UPS Store, etc. are now starting to sell 3D printers and/or offer 3D printing as a service. While its early, this helps build momentum for what’s surely going to be a substantial opportunity. And to highlight some of the emerging applications, companies like Flow with its portable Focus 3D printer and Electroloom are generating attention. Given its mobile 3D printing patent, it would be surprising if Amazon wasn’t already familiar with Flow. And Electroloom’s efforts to print clothing could redefine the apparel industry if successful.
While just starting to emerge, 3D printing is preparing to have a significant impact on the retail sector. Much like when the Internet “burst” upon the scene in the mid 90s, the 3D printing has been under wraps for decades now, but that’s soon about to change and so will retail.