3D Printing and Marketing

I’ve been researching 3D printing for a client and have started thinking about how this technology will impact branding and marketing.  3D printing is the ability to create actual products and parts using machines in our homes and businesses.  The machines have a head that lays down successive layers of material (usually a polymer) to make the product.  You download the design for the product or part to your computer and control the manufacturing from there.

3D printing technology has been getting a lot of press lately because the printers are becoming more affordable and because, if you believe all the hype, they have the potential to impact national economies, such as China’s ability to provide mass-produced, cheap products. But I am more interested in the impact the technology will have on marketing.

One comparative technology is color printers for business and home printing.  Before these printers became affordable, full-color printing was done by commercial printing operations through a laborious process of creating negatives and plates, and using large printing presses.  Because of the labor and capital equipment required, it was fairly expensive, which meant that it was more economical on a per piece basis to print large quantities at one time.  It also did not allow for customization.  The advent of economical color printers for business and home use allowed for single copy and short-run production in which the printed material could be customized to the individual customer.

3D printing goes one step further.  By creating the actual product or part, the technology has the ability to disrupt the entire product chain.  The product or part is no longer the branded item, but the software and printer become the most important elements in the production chain.  How many of us know the model of the machine used to produce various items in our house?  Probably very few.  But with 3D printing the manufacturing machine could be in your basement or spare bedroom.

The 3D printing technology also allows for easy customization.  The material and dyes used in the printers can be changed to vary the consistency, strength or color of the product.  One article discussed how Reebok is using 3D printing to create track shoe bottoms to the individual specifications of how each athlete runs, putting the spikes in the best location to maximize traction.

So far personal 3D printers are being used primarily by home hobbyists, just as the first microcomputers were used.  In short, they are toys.  But it is easy to see how they might be applied in real life.  If a part breaks on your dishwasher, you don’t have to call around to see who stocks it or wait a few days to receive a new one by mail.  Just download the plans, print it and install it.  Or a dishwasher repair service can avoid carrying an inventory of parts and just print what is needed on demand.

Product manufacturers can also use 3D printers to produce prototypes that consumers can try out before a product goes into mass production.  Consumers’ ability to use the product in real world conditions provides the company with insights about likes and functionality.  Features can be inexpensively tweaked during testing or different prototypes can be created to see if consumers prefer one version over the others.

There are many issues that still need to be resolved in the 3D printing world, such as intellectual property rights for the designs and product liability for printed products.  Like most new technologies, 3D is moving faster than all these issues can be addressed, but it will get sorted out (it always does).  In the meantime 3D printing is something to watch, especially how it will impact marketing.

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