3D printing has real potential to transform the retail experience. It delivers a more agile manufacturing process than traditional methods, as well as a huge potential for personalisation – all at an increasingly competitive price. But for all its potential, 3D printing technology actually dates all the way back to the early 1980s. It first made Gartner’s Hype Cycle for emerging technologies in 2007.
Yet what started as an ‘innovation trigger’ on the analyst’s Hype Cycle has quickly turned into a booming market, with Gartner suggesting shipments of 3D printers will grow 98 per cent in 2015, followed by a doubling of shipments through 2016.
It is difficult to say how 3D printing in its various forms will change the course for future retail and customer experience. But emerging trends are indicating that a fundamental change is already beginning to take place as customers are becoming more powerful and technology is evolving to meet their demands.
Firstly, the time-to-market for products is shrinking. Partly due to faster design and prototyping cycles as a result of the 3D printing process, but as this begins to gain momentum, factory setup times, tooling for new products and other barriers to creation will also begin to be phased out.
Secondly, open design is here to stay. Communities of end-users will become increasingly responsible for product designs and this will be available for any end-user with the necessary skills and tools. As a result, customisation will become more and more normalised until consumers begin to expect it as part of production in general.
Finally, personalisation is not the only advantage for customers. The purchase cycle, already optimised to deliver mass-produced products in as short a time frame as possible, could become even shorter with 3D printing. Ordering out-of-stock items, for example, which previously would incur delays of up to a month could be a thing of the past, as potentially any item could be printed on the spot on an ad hoc basis. Likewise, the adoption of 3D printing at home will allow consumers to buy designs online and print the products at home skipping the ordering process all together.
Today, some big-name retailers are beginning to experiment with 3D printing, including Amazon, who launched a 3D printing store selling jewellery, toys and other gifts in the US last year. But this is merely a starting point. As 3D printing continues to evolve, it will be much easier – and cheaper – for customers to buy a much broader range of individual products on-demand, and for firms to offer a much higher degree of speed, accuracy and personalisation.