3D Printing: The Next Retail Revolution

The arrival of shopping without borders online has had major repercussions for the retail industry at large. Now, just as online retail is becoming accepted, another technological revolution threatens to cause an even bigger upset.

As recent news has it, a US start up has announced plans to become the first to use a 3D printer in order to synthesise a steak. That’s right – this company, called Modern Meadow, wants to use a machine to make meat.

According to Cnet, the billionaire founder of PayPal, Peter Thiel is putting as much as $350,000 dollars towards the project. But how soon this project comes to fruition is anyone’s guess, however the fact that so many people believe it is possible, that the technology isn’t too far off, indicates that the winds of change are blowing once again.

So how could 3D printers come to affect manufacturing and retail, and how long before these impacts are seen? Power Retail spoke with futurist and best-selling author, Ross Dawson, about the technology.

3D Printing – Constraints

Here's an example of a currently available mid-sized 3D printer.

Here’s an example of a currently available mid-sized 3D printer.

In order to try and predict how this technology will evolve, it’s important that we first understand both the capabilities and constraints that exist currently, as well as which we can expect to remain into the future.

“One of the major constraints currently and in the future will be the materials used in these devices,” says Dawson. “There are currently a few particular plastics that can be used and we’re beginning to see some metals and metal-plating appearing – but we still don’t have a full spectrum of materials.”

Following these lines, there are plenty of objects a family household would need that are unrealistically large to be printed at home.

“There’s also a certain amount of construction and assembly involved with many items. The various parts may be feasibly printed at home, but they will still require assembly beyond the scope of what the average household could achieve,” Dawson explains. “If you take some recent examples, people point out a working gun that has been manufactured from printed parts. In this case, individual parts were printed, but they still had to be put together correctly. There’s also the case of a 3D printed car – but again, it was only the chassis that was printed, and it required a very large machine.”

So, it seems that while smaller items could previously printed at home, there will still be plenty of ways that retailers will be able to get involved with this technological shift and remain relevant to consumers.

“The other critical constraint is cost-efficiency. Invariably, there will always be items that are more cheaply manufactured and distributed than they could be printed – these items will continue to be sold in stores or online.”

How Retail Will Adapt

Some business models will be severely impacted by the appearance of consumer-ready 3D printers, while others may only have to change slightly in order to keep up with the times. Dawson suggests that there will be plenty of opportunity for retailers to use the technology to their advantage.

“There is likely to be some sort of intermediary phase in the short term, where we see 3D printers appear in the bricks-and-mortar stores, operating as a service. This is not unlike a newsagent offering print or fax services in the past,” Dawson says. “This is something that will allow local retailers to remain competitive.”

Retailers will be able to differentiate by focussing on certain printer ‘categories’ that handle specific types of products, as well as offering full expertise and servicing for the items that are created with them. Of course, there will also be a certain amount of value in the printers and related software.

Even instruments can be printed (assembly required).

Even instruments can be printed (assembly required).

“Designs will be a great source of value, but the 3D printer movement has been heavily associated with ‘open source’ already. Free design libraries already exist online, such as Thingiverse, where people can upload and share 3D designs at no cost.”

There are also existing 3D printers that can print other 3D printers. As this technology evolves, there is the potential for value to shift away from the objects themselves – even the printers. Instead, the real commodity will be in propriety designs, specialist expertise and the ‘disposables’ used in the printers themselves.

“However, cost-efficiency, size and material constraints are the factors that I see won’t be changing for quite some time, and this is how retailers will be able to maintain relevance,” Dawson states.

Short-term Concerns

While 3D printing doesn’t look set to completely reshape the manufacturing and retail industries anytime soon, there are some potential threats that exist right around the corner. Vulnerable retailers will be the ones selling items that are easily and cheaply printed at home – and this will begin to occur sooner than you might expect.

“The question is: how rapidly will these changes develop? That relies on both the technology and the uptake,” Dawson explains. “The pace of development is pretty phenomenal, but it is still more of a hobbyist’s pursuit in terms of cost and what is possible. But we can imagine that within the next few years we will start to see consumer-ready machines that focus on products and materials that are relatively cost-effective. Certainly within five years I wouldn’t be surprised if we started to see 3D printers becoming commonplace in the home.”

“The technology will most certainly be used for some things that people traditionally buy in shops, with classic examples being things like small toys or simple cutlery, crockery, plastic cups and other products like that.”


2 thoughts on “3D Printing: The Next Retail Revolution”

  1. Duann says:

    Check out Shapeways-dot-com to see how this is already unfolding…

  2. Tim says:

    I’m sorry, do you think that big manufacturers will be at all interested in making cost effective printing materials? Of course they won’t, that’s where they’ll look to gouge everybody, just like in ink jet printing.
    No, the real future of this technology is with the open source movement, keeping away from proprietary solutions that’ll suck the life out of this technology and tie it up with patents before it even gets started. It’s cost effective now – there are already projects to take old PVC bottles turn them in to extrusion plastic, which has the additional effect of adding value to recycling rubbish. Support that sort of thing, not outrageously expensive proprietary commercial ‘solutions’.

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