3D printing ushers in an era of ‘one size fits none’, revolutionizing the way goods are manufactured.
It’s hard to ignore 3D printing today, and you probably should not do so – 3D printing is here to stay. Everything from buildings to skull implants to jewelry has been made using this radical new technology. It is already changing the world, and as the technology and its reach advance, it will change the face of almost every industry.
To the surprise of many, 3D printing isn’t actually that new. It has been around for over 30 years, but developments were slow because of patents. Many of the important patents expired within the last few years, unleashing a host of new entrants in the industry. Now, machines will advance and prices will drop.
As this is happening, be ready to adapt your business model and take advantage of the new possibilities. If you are in real estate, imagine slashing your construction cost and time because your building can be printed as soon as all your permissions come in. If you make appliances, imagine your customers printing broken parts instead of coming to you for replacements. This is already happening across the world, and it will pick up pace, and practically no industry will be immune.
Globally, depending on which report you look at, the 3D printing market is predicted to reach anywhere between 9 and 20 billion USD by 2020 (Allied Market Research, Wohlers Report, Markets & Markets).
Bridge to the Consumer
For much of the last 3 decades, 3D printing has predominantly been used for prototyping and in research for industries such as aerospace and automobiles. But 3D printing can be used for anything that needs to be customized.
At present, if you want large quantities of the same product, traditional manufacturing methods are more viable in most cases. But for consumers, a one-a-kind product is an invaluable thing. According to a Gartner Report, currently 8% of the usage of 3D printers is to develop customized/personalized products while 11.1% is used to create new products that are impossible to make using traditional methods. MakeWhale, a company I founded in Mumbai a few months ago, operates in both these fast-growing spaces. 3D printing is going to have a massive impact on the consumer and retail industries. At MakeWhale, we are playing a small part in bringing this technology to the masses in India, as one of the country’s first design houses for premium, customized 3D printed products.
We work with a variety of materials from basic plastics to metals, and have made some beautiful products ranging from creatively enhanced company logos for corporate clients to a model Harley Davidson for a motorcycle enthusiast. Jewelry also has tremendous scope for customization – we’ve made cufflinks imprinted with fingerprints of a loved one and a tailor-made charm bracelet with symbols of significant moments of a friendship. The possibilities can be as boundless as your imagination.
The gifting industry in India has a glut of mass-manufactured goods, and customization is often limited to etching a name. In particular, corporate gifting can find much more meaningful products that are personalized to reflect something about the company, the client and the relationship.
In India, the 3D printing industry is just about taking form and the consumer and retail component forms a small part. We are working to unravel these opportunities. MakeWhale designs products from scratch – no brochures filled with hundreds of generic products. And we are working to show the general population that 3D printing can improve their lives, and is very much accessible to them.
Globally though, it’s a different story. 3D printers are now available to use and buy in various brick and mortar locations such as Staples, Sams Club and UPS. You can even buy 3D printed products on websites like Amazon – a sure sign that 3D printing has reached end consumers.
But what if you have something in mind that you want printed, but don’t know how to design it? Or what if you don’t know how to make your design compatible with 3D printing? This is an area for which the global industry needs to evolve to address better, and this, again, is where MakeWhale comes in. We often work with customers who have no idea what to design, just that they want something special and unique. That is the promise of 3D printing.
Effect on Retail
While 3D printing is not going to replace traditional manufacturing, it is going to complement it very well. Printers can be located right next to (or close to) where products are designed. The supply chain can be shortened. Retailers can offer a wide range of products without inventory concerns.
We are still 5-7 years away from seeing the true potential of 3D printing in retail, but in theory we could see consumers printing products in their homes instead of buying them at the store. While this will depend a lot of factors- such as availability of CAD files, knowledge of the printing process and material availability – it is entirely conceivable that in many homes, consumers will make almost anything from jewelry and accessories to toys, décor and food. New entrepreneurs will be created. Just as eBay helped people open small businesses, designers are already finding new avenues to make and sell their 3D printed or print-able work.
Retail stores should also evolve. Imagine shops with an area for people to order a customized phone cover or pendant, which will be ready for pick-up in a few minutes. Retailers will be keeping a keen eye on such in-house production developments. They also need not be worried about predicting demand for certain products – they can just get them printed in-house, and that too exactly according to the customer’s needs.
Clarity on intellectual property and liability will shape the future of 3D printing in retail in a big way. We already see consumers printing products that are technically copyrighted. While most may do so unknowingly, it will be interesting to see the verdict on this. If a consumer 3D prints a copyrighted product at, say, a Staples or UPS, is it the responsibility of the company or the consumer? There are many such questions that are currently unanswered, and we can expect more industry movements calling for standard laws soon.
Overall, 3D printing is still very young. It is at the point that computers were in during the late 1980s – burgeoning and about to burst onto the scene. Some critics say that the materials are still very limited – and this is true to an extent. But what is also true is that there is incredible research being carried out into printers that work with materials from glass to food. It is only a matter of time before we have most of the materials we use in our daily lives as raw materials in printers.
This article was also previously published in the October 2015 issue of ‘Indian Management’ magazine, the official journal of the All India Management Association. “Printing the Future of Business” – Siddharth Sah Founder & CEO, MakeWhale