The potential for 3D printing to transform the retail and manufacturing industries is hugely disruptive and exciting. Although the technology dates back to the early 1980s, it has taken the relatively recent digital revolution and the Internet of Things to commercialise it and turn it from an industrial to an increasingly consumer technology. Innovation is becoming widespread; sectors such as healthcare are seeing companies working on printing human body parts that can replace costly prosthetics, while NASA is exploring options for producing 3D-printed food.
The retail industry is also poised for big changes. Specialist online providers have started many of the early developments in retail, yet some big-name retailers are beginning to dip their toes in the water, including Amazon, who launched a 3D printing store selling jewellery, toys and other gifts in the US last year.
In recent years, retailers and their suppliers have been under increasing pressure to deliver tailored and individual products and to do so to tight time frames. However, customisation and immediacy are not always economical with traditional manufacturing processes which are optimised for large volumes of consistent output. With 3D printing however – as with digital printing in general - it is becoming increasingly possible to bring personalised and automated manufacturing together. The seller supplies the blueprint, which is quick and hassle-free while the customer customises at home or in the store.
This will usher in a new era of mass-produced yet individual goods. Of course, the industry is still in its infancy and the technology rarely supports large volumes at the moment. However, as the technology evolves, volumes will increase and continue to provide significant cost value and savings.
So does the future of retail and commerce involve democratised design processes and digital blueprint stores? Will manufacturing move from the factory to the shop floor – or eventually to the home – as millions of people grab a base design or blueprint and then customise to their own tastes and likes?
It certainly looks likely. And while this isn’t a change for today, we are steadily moving towards a different kind of commerce - one that will usher in a new era of exciting start-ups and enterprises that can move quickly and innovate on designs.
What does this also mean for our high street and e-commerce stores like Amazon? It is true that for the foreseeable future, we will probably still need our local IKEA and car dealer for sourcing large items that are unlikely to be easily printable at home. But there is a great opportunity for retailers that primarily rely on selling smaller sized household, fashion or other regular items to look at 3D printing as a way to reinvent themselves and stay on the cutting edge. While may not happen in the next decade or two, it is a very real possibility that the next century will bring disruption at a massive consumer scale for the retail industry.