The 3D printing revolution is now

The 3D printing revolution is now

3d_baby_packagedAny new technology that has the promise to eliminate excess inventory, transform the traditional supply chain model and revolutionize retail has our attention. And it should have yours.

3D printing has come a long way from its roots 30 years ago in creating simple polymer prototypes. Today’s printers are capable of multi-material creations as diverse as action figures, food, human internal organs, fully operational cars, guns, life-size homes, and tools for the international space station. There is actually a company in Japan that will print a 3D image of a pregnant woman’s womb from her sonogram. Don’t just bring home a grainy small black and white photo, bring back a life-size 3D model of your actual fetus! Hmmm…?

Sure, these applications are all very interesting, but this technology is starting to change global manufacturing, transportation, logistics and much more.

  • Companies can set up local manufacturing stations in key markets to reduce shipping costs and decrease delivery time.
  • For things like simple spare parts, plastic toys or cases for smartphones, consumers can download designs and print them in-home rather than order them from the manufacturer. This will move large-scale manufacturing to be dedicated to highly technical and more specialized products. It will also have an impact on the demand for warehousing facilities.
  • Whole industries dealing with supply chain will be altered as the need for chains of component resellers diminishes. Perhaps they morph into suppliers and distributors of 3D printing raw materials. Certainly that will be motivated by the growing variety of materials and locations throughout the world needing these materials.
  • The distinction between retail and manufacturing will blur as customers inside a store can choose a product from a huge catalogue, have it printed on-site and bring it home that day. Think about the implications for the transportation industry and the effect it will have on countries benefiting the world economy with its cheap manufacturing labor.
  • No longer will it be necessary to contract with an overseas manufacturer to produce your brilliant invention. Do it at home. But, if you wish not to invest in the 3D printing hardware, you can now contract with a company like Shapeways to whom you will upload your 3D product design file, designate a quantity of 1 or 1 million, and have it made. No need for trips to the far east or lengthy and expensive negotiations or trial and error.
  • Need to replace a broken part? Instead of expensive replacements shipped from the original manufacturer, download the 3D file and print it yourself that same day. That goes for both DYI consumers and manufacturers. Perhaps an entire industry of local printers capable of printing millions of parts for a huge variety of products.
  • Our age-old business practices relying on seasons and scarcity will be less common since through on-demand 3D printing, we will have year-round infinite inventory.
  • 3D printing is an additive process as apposed to the traditional subtractive manufacturing process. By its very nature, the reduction of waste from this new type of manufacturing will reduce both costs and environmental impact.

As with all disruptive technologies, there will be winners and then there will be legacy companies who fight the loss of their traditional business practices. There will also be interesting copyright issues once duplicates of products or components can be printed by anyone. How will companies view a co-manufacturing process with their consumers? Will manufacturers try to fight the 3D printing revolution much like the record industry fought Napster and the streaming services? That didn’t work out too well for those leading the fight, did it?

Our hope is that manufacturers and transportation companies will learn from the music industry model and embrace this new technology and discover ways in which their expertise and resources can be utilized to profit from it.

3D printing is the next wave of brand/consumer engagement. It is truly a world-changing technology, the transformational results of which will be exciting to see.