Recently, the Economist ran the leader “Print me a Stradivarius” about the evolution of three dimensional printing technology that will soon allow manufacturing to be customized at the unit level. The technology enables individuals to “print” complex plastic or metal products on individual machines virtually eliminating waste from the production process and the need for assembly lines and massive facilities. The process will also reduce the time it takes to bring a product from the design stage to production by anywhere from 50-80% according to Will Sillar of Legerwood, a British consulting firm.
3D printing has been around for decades but only recently has it been refined to create final products in large quantities. Terry Wohlers, a researcher specializing in 3D printing, estimates that by 2050, 50% of all 3D printing will be devoted to final products (compared to 20% today). The implications of this new technology are far reaching and could change both manufacturing and business much the same way globalization and the internet has done over the past decade.
Aside from the obvious cost benefits from reduced waste, fewer labor hours, and less machinery required to produce products, this printing technology will empower the commoner to become his or her own factory. Thus, 3D printing has the potential to return society to a much more community based, localized way of life, away from factories and sprawling industrial complexes. It will complete the home business, making it possible to design, produce, ship, and market a product without leaving one’s home, or more realistically, garage. 3D printing will not stop the insurmountable tide of urbanization as people will continue to congregate in larger and larger metropolises. It will, however, allow nature lovers and country folk to continue making a living away from large city centers. Communities will no longer have to depend on single industries or production facilities for economic survival.
While a lot of this is pure speculation, if the Economist’s expert guesstimators are anywhere close to the mark, then this technology will do for manufacturing what eBay did for retail. It will give nutty inventors and crafty entrepreneurs a way to create completely vertically integrated businesses from the comforts of their own beds by simply hitting “print”. The only step that will be non-democratized will be logistics, a process that must retain scale economies to remain efficient. This means that companies such as UPS will gain power in the supply chain and offer more specialized shipping services for smaller businesses.
For marketing firms, this development has two major implications. First, the industry will continue to spread horizontally away from big agencies and multi-million dollar accounts, moving towards many smaller, specialized shops handling smaller accounts. Secondly, it could lead to micro-marketing in the same vein as micro-finance. Small business owners will increasingly use internet-based technology to advertise and promote their products through social media, online marketplaces like Amazon and eBay, and other new applications that develop along the way.
To accommodate this technology and the competition it will bring from entrepreneurs, current manufacturers will have to offer greater mass customization. Companies will have to embrace and invest in this new production process early to be able to offer customers unit-level customization across all product lines. Allowing customers to choose their own color scheme or have their initials stitched will no longer be enough.
Marketing messages will have to emphasize the benefits of scale, mainly lower prices and superior service that smaller companies will not be able to easily match. Large companies will have to place an even greater emphasis on customer service with accommodating return policies, longer warranties, 24 hour online product support, hassle-free fast shipping, and longer store hours giving customers no reason to switch to up-start brands. Personal touches in the service process will no longer be a point of differentiation, but an expected part of the purchase cycle. Upgrade a customer’s shipping once in a while tell them it was specially done for them. Or offer more personalized gift options and save them in a database of customer preferences to give them that “you remembered!’ feeling next time they buy.
Brands will have to become even greater symbols of trust and familiarity in customers’ minds. Manufacturers will have to communicate their years of research and expertise through their brands, assuring customers that that small companies will not be able to offer the same quality and reliability. Companies will be able to continue building trust by sourcing their materials locally, beating up-starts with 3D printing itself. Above all, companies will have to strategically plan how to adapt and incorporate this innovative technology into their businesses, and not fight it, or worse ignore it.Share