New technology usually starts out as large and centralized while being very specialized and designed to do just a few things. Early mainframe computers are a great example of this. They took up an entire room and were big enough to walk inside of to make repairs.
Then, in line with Moore’s Law, the technology shrinks in size, becoming more affordable, powerful and widespread. That’s where we are today with 3-D printing, or design fabrication. This technology started as a way to prototype parts from a digital model for the aerospace industry. Today, a 3-D printer costs around $5,000, fits on your desk and manufactures everything from clothing and prosthetic limbs to hearing aids and innovative food products.
Click here to see 3-D printing in action with an overview of how it works.
Consumers Will See It, Want It & Make It
3-D printing will be as big and monumental a technological shift as the personal computer. Personal computers digitized human knowledge, making it searchable and available on demand. They were the precursor to today’s smartphones — devices that put more computing power in the palm of your hand than all the computers NASA used to put a man on the moon.
How will 3-D printing evolve and what can we expect to see in five to 10 years? We’ll need to see how this technology is applied and how this innovation continues to evolve. But let’s consider some possible scenarios brands should keep in mind.
3-D print technology is changing when and where manufacturing is done. Instead of a factory filled with machines and employees, anyone, anywhere in the world, is a potential manufacturer from her kitchen table or home office desktop.
Concurrently, the energy required to produce a very sophisticated and precisely machined part is on the decline. This sets off a chain reaction of disruption through the entire supply chain. The shipment of goods around the country will eventually decrease and irrevocably change distribution models.
Armed with their own manufacturing capabilities, consumers will purchase 3-D design files instead of products. This would take impulse shopping to a new level, but consider a more practical application. A consumer is cooking dinner one evening and realizes he needs a new spatula or extra place setting. He shops for the 3-D design files, buys them online, downloads them and prints the products he needs to complete his dinner experience.
Truly Mass Customization
This technology could finally make mass customization a reality. Selecting product features and design elements, downloading the design files and printing the product will become a commonplace event. Look forward even further and we can imagine a time when consumers are designing and producing products from the ground up. For example, a new mother may have a better idea for an infant sippy cup. Her design allows it to be refitted with new lids as the child grows. Mom can find an open-source design and customize it to her liking. The consumer becomes not only the user but the creator of design content.
We can easily imagine a future where new and innovative consumer products stream out of homes around the world. And we’ll all share, download and print these designs because they’re cool, they work and they’re convenient.
So why should a manufacturer, a consultant, a designer or a brand manager care about this now? It will force us, once again, to rethink the four P’s of the marketing mix: product, price, placement and promotion. It will require us to completely change how we operate.
If history offers any lessons, it’s that we cannot fully know and appreciate how new human inventions will be used. At this point in time, we are in a similar place as when the first home PCs were on the market. 3-D printing is interesting and cool. But there’s not a whole lot we can do with the technology just yet. Yet in just a few years, we’ll wonder how we ever lived without it.