It's more than cool technology – it's a game-changer
Mention three-dimensional (3D) printing to any of your colleagues and most will know exactly what you are talking about. Dig a little deeper and you'll find some futurologists predicting that 3D printing will herald a seismic shift in manufacturing, supply chain logistics and consumerism.
Over the last few months Edgar, Dunn & Company (EDC) has been talking with retailers to understand their perspective and the business implications of technological advancements in 3D printing. We've determined that 3D printing will lead to changes in consumer power, personalisation, the protection of intellectual property, supply chains, payment processing and the traditional infrastructures associated with manufacturing.
A hidden history and bright future 3D printing has been around for more than 30 years, and the majority of its existence has been hidden away in the depths of specialised workshops and research laboratories. Its application has mainly focused on specialised component manufacturing or rapid prototyping – ranging from the manufacturing of aircraft to Formula 1 racing cars. In the next few years almost every consumer in the developed countries will be directly or indirectly impacted by the 3D printing revolution.
A retailer's supply chain has traditionally been built around warehousing and transporting products from the point of manufacture. 3D printing allows retailers to hugely reduce the carbon footprint associated with production and distribution.
3D printing has been around for more than 30 years, and the majority of its existence has been hidden away in the depths of specialised workshops and research laboratories.
3D scanning, 3D modeling and 3D printing are all accessible technologies that will be used to improve the consumer experience, and omni-channel retailing will be coupled with a plethora of smart Internet-enabled devices. The "click-and-deliver" retailing model commonly seen today will evolve into something more like "click-personalise-and-deliver," allowing consumers to purchase products as they appear in television shows or on Internet-enabled advertising billboards.
Major consumer empowerment - The ability to print (or more correctly, to "manufacture") close to where the design was created is one step toward "distributed manufacturing," which allows decentralized and geographically independent distributed production of products and components. In the future, everyone with access to the Internet will have the ability to create, design and manufacture almost anything: jewelry, crockery, a pair of shoes, furniture or even spare components for your car.
The "click-and-deliver" retailing model commonly seen today will evolve into something more like "click-personalise-and-deliver," allowing consumers to purchase products as they appear in television shows or on Internet-enabled advertising billboards.
Today, it is possible to print a fully functioning penknife using high-resolution 3D printers. Victorinox, the makers of Swiss Army knives, must see 3D printing as a threat. On the other hand, Lego, one of the oldest and most famous toy brands, has embraced 3D printing as an opportunity to reach a wider audience that wishes to personalise their Lego building blocks.
The opposite of globalisation - Globalisation has been seen as the economic unification or joining together of the world's economies. 3D printing is the opposite to globalisation. This is an idea of localisation involving local producers selling to consumers who live in the same area.
You could be looking for a spare part for your dishwasher — for example, it could be manufactured at your local hardware store. This would be a dramatic difference from the same component being manufactured and transported around the world to be stored in a distribution centre until the time came when it would be sent to each of the branch stores.
In such a model, inventory is maintained according to the demand and supply, which in turn make up a vast network of supply chain logistics. 3D printing will provide the opportunity to reverse globalisation and nurture a greater degree of customisation, individualism and creativity.
Intellectual property issues
The proliferation of 3D printing also creates complex questions about intellectual property rights (IPR). Common types of IPR include copyright, patents, industrial design rights and the rights that protect trademarks.
The potential infringement of IPR could be a significant stumbling block to growth of the fledgling 3D printing industry. Why, for example, couldn't consumers obtain the blueprint for the desk lamp designed by Zaha Hadid, the acclaimed Iraqi-British architect, and have it printed at a fraction of its price tag? The designer will most certainly not receive any royalties, and unauthorised commercial production of patented products by 3D printing may constitute an act of patent infringement.
More ways to shop and pay - We have already seen the importance to retailers of shoppers embracing multiple channels, and we believe that retailers are currently standing at the crossroads of a substantial change in how consumers pay. The genesis of this change has been spurred by the use of the Internet, cloud computing, e-commerce and the rapid consumer adoption of smart devices.
Payment is at the heart of the retailer's DNA, but retailers must take steps to better understand customers' high expectations for 3D printing. Getting the payment process wrong or even making it slightly clumsy could turn customers off in droves.
With the new 3D printing paradigm, it is likely that there will be multiple, yet smaller, payment transactions that must take place to allow the consumer to purchase a single product. In the future, the retailer will have the opportunity to take centre stage and manage these smaller payments on behalf of the consumer and the different stakeholders in the new "Additive Manufacturing" value chain.
With the advent of 3D printing, consumers have options — they could buy a design online and print at home or at a 3D print shop, or they could design at home and print at a 3D print shop. The retailer will likely act as the broker and offer multiple pricing options for the same product depending on the sourcing and printing options.
Payment processing must be flexible to take into account the retailer's evolving point of interaction, which will be channel-agnostic. Equally, retailers must strive to better understand the customer journey, from pre-payment to post-payment, with and without 3D printing as part of that journey.