3D Printing Beyond the Desktop

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Main imageSome people think that the only people who’ll use 3D printing are those who own a 3D printer and that the only people who will own a 3D printer are those that know how to create 3D files. That’s a pretty small audience. Probably less than one million people on the planet have the skills to design in CAD and only a percentage of those could or would design for 3D printing. If that’s it, if that’s the limit of its potential, why is 3D printing getting so much attention?

Because consumers will buy 3D printed products they neither designed or manufactured.

Why? Because 3D printing eliminates so much of the supply chain cost. There’s little to no packaging, distribution, or merchandising expense. It also streamlines the time it takes to get new products to market. 3D printing offers true, just-in-time manufacturing, anywhere. 3D printing makes it possible to create new types of products that couldn’t be created any other way. It’s also better for the environment and, even when it’s more expensive, some people will pay a premium because 3D printing allows them to customize their products.

If consumers don’t design and print their own products, who will?

Even though many of us carry high resolution cameras in our pocket (smart devices) and take an estimated 375 billion pictures per year, there is still a thriving market for stock photography. One stock photo service, Shutterstock, recently announced the 200 millionth download from their website. The total size of the photo licensing (stock photography) business is somewhere between $2 and $20 billion annually, depending on who you ask. So even in a market like photography, where nearly anyone can participate, there is a demand for the work of others. In a market like 3D printing, where fewer people can create, the demand for their services will be high.

Many of the 3D printed products we’ll consume will likely be made by “commercial” 3D printing companies. For a model, consider the traditional, 2D printing industry. According to Print is Big it’s a $640 Billion market and over 45 trillion pages are printed annually. Of all the revenue, commercial printing accounts for $160 billion, or 25%. Of the page volume, all “hardcopy peripherals,” including desktop inkjet, monochrome, and color laser printers, account for 3 trillion pages, or less than 7% of the total volume. Print-for-pay gets a much bigger chunk of the pie than desktop and office printing – and just because it’s “commercial” doesn’t mean its not digital. Commercial inkjet alone is a $33 billion business.

The analogy doesn’t end there. More and more traditional print is being sold over the Internet. Print is Big notes that the percentage of online orders for print went from 3% in 2001 to roughly 25% today, and projects they’ll hit 50% by 2017. That’s right, half the orders for all print projects will be placed online.

Sound far fetched? It already happened, what seemed like years ago, with digital photo prints. In 2010, more photo prints were ordered online (13.5 billion) than printed at home (13.4 billion.) According to IBISWorld, online photo printing is now a $2 billion business and there are over 800 companies in the market. Online 3D printing isn’t quite to that scale yet, but 3D printed products are already being sold online and more soon will be.

The photo printing market also offers great insight into the value of customization. Until recently the majority of revenue came from 4×6, 5×7, and 8.x10 prints. But that’s changed and by 2015, its projected that over 80% of photo print revenue will come from custom photo products like canvas wraps, personalized books, and coffee mugs, among others. The market for these items will grow from 112 million units produced just last year to 158 million units by 2017.

These customized products pilfer sales from generic competitors in their respective product categories. Customized 3D printed products will further nip at the sales of generic products.

3D printing’s adoption isn’t even totally dependent on the home and web markets. 3D printing will also see adoption at retail. 3D print shops around the world are already offering their services. These retailers serve their local communities with a general set of capabilities, much like quick printers, office supply stores, and shipping companies support their customers today. They’ll likely configure their services to support business clients and their 3D printing needs.

So, what about the consumer?

3D printing creates huge opportunities for specialty retailers. What if a jeweler, for instance, had a 3D printer capable of printing precious metal objects at very tight tolerances. They could add a huge selection of products without taking on additional inventory. With their skill as jewelers, they could easily differentiate themselves from 3D print generalists. As the technology matures, it seems very plausible that a jeweler like Zale’s or Fred Meyer could offer 3D printed jewelry services at all of their thousands of locations.

Specialty retailers also have relationships with brands. Relationships they can leverage for content, just like in the past they’ve leveraged them for product. What would you pay to walk into a Dicks Sporting Goods and “print” a pair of 3D printed Nike or Adidas running shoes, fitted specifically for your foot? I’m pretty sure I’d pay just to stand there in the store and watch them made!

Say 3D printer in the future and people may ask if you mean the device or the profession. If the 3D printing market develops at all like other markets before it, we will create our own content, but we’ll likely print more of other people’s designs. Sometimes we’ll print at home, on our own device and other times for many reasons, we’ll buy 3D printed products online or at retail.

3D printing is not a device, its an ecosystem with many moving parts. The industry is still in its infancy, but it seems possible that 3D printing could change the way we buy and consume things. The animation and gaming industry is a $120 billion industry. Toys are $80 billion, Auto parts are $40 billion and hardware is $22 billion. The global apparel industry, by itself is worth over $1 trillion annually. As the 3D printing industry matures, it will chip away at each of those markets. More and more of the product we buy in those categories will be 3D printed. The questions to be answered now are where will they be printed, and by whom?

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John is 3DLT's Chief Marketing Officer. Working mainly in the print industry, he has nearly 25 years experience in sales, marketing, product management, and technology. John has launched several B2B and B2C websites. In 2012 he co-founded 3DLT and started 3D4printers.com, which evangelizes 3D printing in the traditional 2D printing space.

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