3D Printing: Mass Market Retail May Be in Serious Trouble

Having an efficient supply chain used to be enough for retailers to be successful (think Walmart). And with the advent of advanced analytics, it became possible for companies to suggest products or to provide add-ons (think Amazon). However, these techniques may become obsolete, as 3D printing and robotic manufacturing take over centralized production. It is not likely that a single company will capitalize on this, for we are now entering the ascendancy of design.

“From a consumer perspective, this means more products to choose from at better prices, faster delivery, and with greater personalization. But from a retail perspective this is nothing short of revolutionary: the bottom is dropping out of the middle of retailers’ entire business — the part where they produce and provide customers with products,” reports Quartz.

Robot technology and 3D printing allow for smaller production houses that are distributed closer to buyers. This shift in manufacturing distribution has harsh implications for giant supply chains.

“Ponoko, a platform connecting 3D designs with shops to produce them, is a great example of this trend,” explains Quartz. “By connecting a variety of design platforms with small manufacturers who have laser cutters and 3D printers, anyone can order a design from its catalogue and have it locally manufactured and delivered. All of a sudden, ordering a chair, a table, or a vital component for your stroller is as easy as hitting ‘buy.'”

This efficiency helps cut labor and production costs.

Moreover, the marketing side of retail is also changing, where word of mouth is becoming more predominant than traditional means of advertising.  People are now communicating with each other to make purchasing decisions.

“The rise in ready-access communication platforms like Facebook and Twitter only aid in this,” notes the article. “The result is that the primary value of a physical good increasingly lies in its design, which can now be infinitely represented and reproduced, instantly communicated, semi-automatically assembled… and shared between friends as easily as pictures of cats.”

This has led to platforms such as Thingiverse where one is presented with a wide array of 3D designs, most of which can be freely downloaded. This site allows any object to be modified, shipped or manufactured according to buyer preference. These designs can easily be created with Ponoko.

“This gets much more exciting when you consider that improving machine vision and visual manipulation technologies means that increasingly you can rely on just a picture of a thing to convert it into a 3D design you can later produce. Like that chair you saw in the lobby of your hotel on vacation this spring? Take a snapshot, automatically convert it to a 3D model, tweak the color to match your curtains and have it delivered by the time you get home,” explains Quartz.