Manufacturers vs. Retailers: Who Wins?
January 8, 2014,
Another line of thinking that will likely be ushered to the exit in the future, thanks to 3D printing: seeing production in terms of manufacturers versus retailers.
Typically change is evaluated as a zero-sum game: in this case, if something is beneficial to retailers, it will likely be harmful to manufacturers - or the reverse. And so a probable initial reaction to 3D printing is "who will it put out of business first, manufacturers or retailers?" But experts interviewed for this report didn't recognize an us-vs.-them scenario.
Nate Graham, strategist for trend observer sparks & honey, pointed out that 3D technology has the potential to blur the lines between retail and manufacturing - and already has. Graham said he could envision a scenario where a manufacturer cuts out the retailer by printing and selling products directly - but he also said "the reverse could be true as well."
Connect with consumers
The technology allows users to "connect directly with the consumers," he said. And so "the industry needs to speak B to C."
Already 3D printing is being used to sell directly to consumers. Some examples include online shops - similar to an Etsy-type model, hosted by Shapeways, which has 3D printing facilities in Long Island City, N.Y., and Eindhoven, the Netherlands. To sell on Shapeways Shops, individuals can upload renderings for products and set their own prices. Shapeways takes care of production, payment, customer service and shipping.
There are other online 3D printing services such as i.Materialise, based in Belgium, and Sculpteo, based in San Francisco, that host online shops selling 3D-printed goods, and Hot Pop Factory, based in Toronto.
Sculpteo and Hot Pop Factory, along with MakerBot, are partners with eBay in a venture announced in July that allows iPhone users the ability to download an app to buy customizable printed 3D items like jewelry and tech accessories. They print at the 3D printers' facilities.
Brick-and-mortar locations are also popping up.
Billing itself as the first retail store in the mid-Atlantic region focused on 3D printing and scanning, the Bmore3D Store opened in Baltimore in December. Customers were able to shop for gifts made by 3D printers. And last year, a 3D print shop opened for December only in Manhattan's fashion district, selling both printers and 3D printed objects as well.
More permanently, UPS in July became the first nationwide retailer to offer 3D printing to start-ups, small businesses and retail customers. The company rolled out its first printer in a UPS store in San Diego, with plans to add 3D printing to other locations throughout the United States.
UPS said it conducted a poll of small business owners that indicated great interest in creating prototypes, artistic renderings or promotional materials.
In a statement, Michelle Van Slyke, vice president of marketing and small business solutions at The UPS Store, explained why UPS is offering the service: "Start-ups, entrepreneurs and small business owners may not have the capital to purchase a 3D printer on their own, but they may have a need to show prototypes to their current and potential customers."
The UPS Store is testing the Stratasys uPrint SE Plus printer, which according to Stratasys can print detailed objects more accurately than home 3D printers.
For manufacturers looking to invest in a 3D printer, a desktop model like the ones sold by Stratasys subsidiary, MakerBot, might be the way to go.
Personal 3D printers have come down in price from $100,000 in 2009, when Maker-Bot entered the market, to $2,199 for the new MakerBot Replicator 2 Desktop 3D Printer, the company's fourth-generation machine. They have come down in size as well and can print bigger objects with finer resolutions, meaning they don't need sanding or other post-production finishing.
But the Achilles heel of 3D printing, from a manufacturing standpoint, is time.
In a June column in The Wall Street Journal, Karl Ulrich, Wharton's vice dean of innovation and professor of operations and information management, compared the speed of 3D printing to an injection molding machine.
A factory injection-molding machine can make 100 plastic spoons every 15 seconds while the best-performing 3D printers, he wrote, can only make one spoon in 10 minutes.
But that comparison may be missing the point. The goal of 3D printing is its ability to create an infinitely customized product. Not a mass produced 3D printed spoon, but a bettered signed spoon - or whatever item is desired - personalized beyond previous expectations.