Monday Mar 11, 2013

3D Printing

Often consumers want instant gratification, which is why my previous post discussed the importance of fast shipping for online retailers.  Getting to affordable same-day or next-day delivery will be an important milestone for the retail industry, and we're already making progress in that direction with "shipping clubs" and local delivery services.  But what if there was a way to skip the delivery process altogether, much like what we've done with digital content.  I don't order music CDs or DVDs from websites anymore; I simply download the content.

3D printing has the potential to change the way we manufacture and deliver physical products.  The use of the word "printer" implies ink and paper, but 3D printers use drops of different materials to create objects one layer at a time.  Traditional manufacturing converts a block of material into a product by carving the shape.  3D printing, however, is additive.  Instead of removing excess material in a particular shape, it builds the product by spitting out material in layers.

A leading company in this field is Geomagic, which was recently acquired by 3D Systems.  Its founder, Ping Fu, recently spoke at SXSW while wearing shoes designed by Janne Kyttanen that were created by a 3D printer.  (As you can see in the picture, these shores include an iPhone holster as well.)  In the not too distant future, 3D printers could be commonplace in households.  Prices are projected to drop to under $1500 this year and possibly as low as $500 in three years.  I can imagine a new category of commerce where products are selected online and printed either in the home or a nearby store.  These products can be easily personalized, have almost no supply chain overhead, and can be delivered quickly.

But that brings up some interesting issues as well.  Can the product be returned?  Can products be easily pirated?  If a product is found to be defective, does the fault lie with the designer, seller, or printer?

On-demand commerce could soon escape the digital world and infiltrate the physical world.  Which retailers will be ready?

About


David Dorf, Sr Director Technology Strategy for Oracle Retail, shares news and ideas about the retail industry with a focus on innovation and emerging technologies.


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