3D Printing Technology for Retailers – An Opportunity or a Waste of Money?

3D printing technology for retailers is now emerging as an outcome for small localized retailers that are facing closure. However, as it is with most disruptive technologies, the advantages that 3D printing offer for retailers should be weighed against its potential pitfalls.

Although the 3D printing technology has been used for a number of years, it has been mostly on an industrial scale. Meanwhile, the price of desktop 3D printers has started to come down resulting in an average annually growth rate of 170% since 2008 1. The door is now starting to open for innovative retailers to include 3D printing technology into their business models. As a result, brave small retail store owners have already started using in store 3D printing.

3D printing is a game changer in retailing, according to Richard Kestenbaum, contributing for Forbes. Richard writes: “Last week Ministry of Supply installed a machine in its Boston store that can make a garment on demand in 90 minutes (with finishing done offline after the garment is created). The machine can be set to make garments all day and night or it can be instructed to make a garment to a specific customer’s design, allowing customers to customize the colors they want in the garment.”

Let’s have a look how 3D printing works…

How does 3D printing works?

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing (AM), refers to processes used to create a three-dimensional object in which layers of material are formed under computer control  (Wikipedia). According to Berman (2012), 3D printers work in a manner similar to traditional laser or inkjet printers. Rather than using multi-colored inks, the 3D printer uses powder that is slowly built into an image on a layer-by-layer basis. All 3D printers also use 3D CAD software that measures thousands of cross-sections of each product to determine exactly how each layer is to be constructed 2.

3D printing uses such raw materials as plastics; resins; super alloys, such as nickel-based chromium and cobalt chromium; stainless steel; titanium; polymers; and ceramics. Examples of products that are manufactured by 3D printing includes artwork, automotive parts, ductwork for a mobile hospital, sand cores for automotive engine block castings, architectural models, dental bridges, jewellery, ball bearing assemblies, and gear assemblies 4. But how can retailers use 3D printers to their advantage?

3D Printing technology for retailers – a 3D-printed product out of a desktop printer

What are the opportunities of 3D printing technology for retailers?

Cremona, et al. (2016) identified the following points on how 3D printing may influence a firm’s strategy:

  • Process innovation:
    • Delivery time of the product: the time to market is extremely reduced, to the extreme that it might become real time.
    • Product development process: is optimized because adjustments are made in a faster and less costly way.
    • Quality and flexibility: is under the control of the retailer with 3D printing.
    • Satisfaction of the single customer demand: personalized products are added to the platform.
  • Customer’s value:
    • Brand awareness: a close collaborative relationship is established between the retailer and the customers thanks to usability testing.
    • Customer’s loyalty: offering customized, personalized products may help clients to feel special.
  • Product platform enhancement:
    • Pushing the limits of traditional manufacturing machines: now new products can be developed also in a different approach and materials are added instead of subtracted.
    • Personalized modules: products can be designed and delivered exactly how the customers want them.
  • Sustainable competitive advantage:
    • Differentiation strategy: carrying out projects on demand makes the retailer to perform a differentiation strategy. It aims at delivering the most technologically advanced product, which is a unique solution with a unique design for each customer.
    • High specialized production know-how: allow companies to actually integrate 3D printing in the product life cycle. In doing so, an additional service is provided.

The most important strategic advantages that 3D printing offer small local retailers are customization, personalization and control over the supply chain. But what are the pitfalls of 3D printing?

What are the pitfalls of 3D printing technology for retailers?

3D printing is in the introduction phase of its life-cycle in the retail industry. Subsequently there will be a lot of surprises (good and bad) as the technology gets adopted more widely.

Shaleen recently blogged in inkjetwholesale.com.au the following of disadvantages of 3D printing:

  1. Scale and size limitations – you can’t print multiple objects of the same type at the same time.
  2. The absence of economies of scale – because every object or product is printed individually.
  3. Cost of buying and setting up a 3D printer – the initial cost still remains something of a roadblock for most businesses and individuals.
  4. 3D printed objects may require heavy duty post processing – it isn’t only the lack of polish that is the problem but also the possible dimensional inaccuracy.
  5. Large scale adoption of 3D printing will result in significant job losses – every new invention ends up taking away jobs amongst the masses.

According to Beck and Jacobson (2017), legal implications may include what is exactly a product, who is the manufacturer, what is the marketplace, and who should be potentially liable for a defective 3D-printed product (once “product” is defined).

At the end of the day, the most important aspect of 3D Printing technology for retailers is whether the customers will accept or reject it.

What do customers think of 3D printing technology in retail stores?

Retail Customer Experience recently reported results of a survey by self-service solutions company Interactions on what shoppers want from retail technology. The study, “What Shoppers Want from Retail Technology,” surveyed more than 1,000 adult shoppers. Of those polled, 84 percent expect retailers to successfully use tech features and functionality to boost the shopping experience and 62 percent are motivated to shop after an initial human greeting when entering a store. Importantly is what the respondents said about 3D printing in shops…

“According to the survey, 95% of shoppers said they were eager to buy products that were 3D printed, and 79% said that they would even spend more money at a store that offered product customization through 3D printing.”

Wow, really? I think we should end (or start) here…

Concluding

Lastly, 3D printing technology for retailers is a genuine disruptive digital technology that may (or will) turn the retail industry upside down. There are many recent examples of disruptive technologies that changed the rules of the retail game. As the costs of buying and setting up 3D printing technology are getting less, more retailers will adopt the technology. Indeed, if you invest now in the technology, you’ll be an early adopter and enjoy (localized) market leadership. Consequently, you’ll have to battle through the growing pains of the technology. On the other hand, by waiting a bit longer, laggard retailers my get 3D printers for a bargain, but at that time, probably, the customers will already be with the pioneers.

Video: The 3D printing process

Notes

1 Li, Y., Linke, B.S., Voet, H., Falk, B., Schmitt, R. and Lam, M. 2017. Cost, sustainability and surface roughness quality – A comprehensive analysis of products made with personal 3D printers, CIRP Journal of Manufacturing Science and Technology, 16:1-11.

2 Berman, B. 2012. 3-D printing: The new industrial revolution, Business horizons, 55(2):155-162.

3 Cremona, L., Mezzenzana, M., Ravarini, A. and Buonanno, G. 2016. How additive manufacturing adoption would influence a company strategy and business model, MIBES Transactions, 10(2):23-34.

4 Conner, B.P., Manogharan, G.P., Martof, A.N., Rodomsky, L.M., Rodomsky, C.M., Jordan, D.C. and Limperos, J.W. 2014. Making sense of 3-D printing: Creating a map of additive manufacturing products and services, Additive Manufacturing, 1:64-76.

5 Beck, J.M. and Jacobson, M.D. 2017. 3D Printing: What Could Happen to Products Liability When Users (and Everyone Else in Between) Become Manufacturers, Minn. JL Sci. & Tech., 18:143.

Images and video

  1. Commons.wikimedia.com; https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:3D_print_in_process_(9437659715).jpg
  2. Proto3000

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