3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is no secret, having been developed in the early 1980s. But in the last five-plus years, it has captured the imagination of a much wider audience, beyond the early adopters that pioneered the industry. It has become apparent that this technology will likely change the face of industries beyond manufacturing, given its ability to facilitate “mass customization.”  

Game-Changing Technology

As The Economist eloquently stated in February 2011:

"The industrial revolution of the late 18th century made possible the mass production of goods, thereby creating economies of scale which changed the economy—and society — in ways that nobody could have imagined at the time. Now a new manufacturing technology has emerged which does the opposite. Three-dimensional printing makes it as cheap to create single items as it is to produce thousands and thus undermines economies of scale. It may have as profound an impact on the world as the coming of the factory did… 

Just as nobody could have predicted the impact of the steam engine in 1750 — or the printing press in 1450, or the transistor in 1950 — it is impossible to foresee the long-term impact of 3D printing. But the technology is coming, and it is likely to disrupt every field it touches."

This is a game-changing technology, which is a big reason it’s taken so long to make it to market. Already 30 years has passed since its inception, and only recently has the general public started to use and understand the terms 3D printing and additive manufacturing. In light of its complexity and the vastness of its reach, I will focus here on developments in the retail sector over the last several years.

The Retail Opportunity

The focus for retail is not about competing with the 3D printer manufacturers, but concentrating on 3D printing as a service and selling the printers and materials. Retailers can leverage printers from existing technology providers (e.g., Stratasys, 3D Systems, etc.) to print unique and/or custom items that would have been too costly to produce as single items or small batches previously.  

One of the first companies — if not the first — to capitalize on this opportunity is Shapeways, a spinoff of Royal Philips Electronics, which started offering printing as a service in 2008. It is now the largest online marketplace for 3D printed goods. Things got more interesting in the summer of 2013 when Amazon ventured into the space by launching its 3D printing service

Besides bringing its 250 million customers and 40 million Prime members to bear, Amazon also filed for patents on a system that would use 3D printers installed on trucks to produce ordered products. This would bypass the need for fulfillment centers and speed delivery time for customer’s orders. While highly unlikely to move into production anytime soon, it’s one more sign of Amazon's relentless move forward. When it comes to finding a more effective way of leveraging technology to serve its customers, Amazon leaves few, if any, stones unturned.

While Shapeways was the early mover, and Amazon is looking to advance 3D printing in retail, other companies such as Home Depot, Micro Center, Sam’s Club, Staples and UPS Store have started selling 3D printers and/or offer 3D printing as a service. While still early days in this area, this helps build momentum for what promises to be a substantial opportunity. 

Emerging applications generating a good deal of attention include companies like Flow, with its portable Focus 3D printer, and Electroloom. Given its mobile 3D printing patent, it would be surprising if Amazon wasn’t already familiar with Flow. And Electroloom’s efforts to print clothing could redefine the apparel industry if successful.

3D printing has moved from the crawl to the walking phase, but it's only a matter of time before it has a significant impact on the retail industry. Much like when the Internet burst upon the scene in the mid 90s, the 3D printing revolution has been under wraps for decades now, but that’s about to change. It’s only a matter of when, not if. 

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