How will 3D printing transform retail?

April 4, 20173 Minute Read

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When it comes to smart tech in retail, few advancements will likely be as revolutionary as 3D printing. While this innovation is poised to shake up the entire supply chain, it can also offer much-needed sustainability to struggling retailers and provide consumers unprecedented flexibility.

In theory, 3D printing sounds like the perfect solution. Is there anything more exciting in this instant gratification-loving society than having exactly what you want, exactly when and where you want it? No boxes of inventory, no pesky shipping wait times—just near-immediate access to products entirely customized to a shoppers’ expectations. But what’s the reality of 3D printing in the retail space, and what will the future bring?

Is retail in peril?

Online shopping has wreaked havoc on brick-and-mortar retailers’ bottom lines. With roughly 8 out of every 10 Americans shopping online, e-commerce isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. To stay afloat, many retail giants are pivoting to embrace digital trends. In early January, for instance, Macy’s announced it was closing 68 stores and cutting 10,000 jobs to invest in other areas, including e-commerce.

But 3D printing—along with other rapidly advancing tech, like the Internet of Things and beacon technology—can save storefronts by enhancing and personalizing the consumer experience.

How retailers use 3D printing today

When 3D printing emerged in the tech scene a few years ago, it was astonishingly futuristic, expensive, and seemingly impractical for any industry outside aerospace engineering. In 2014, Gartner predicted consumer 3D printing was more than five years away—and even that seemed far-fetched. Now, organizations are already leveraging this smart tech in retail.

One of the most successful pioneers in retail 3D printing is Staples. In addition to offering 3D printing services in a select number of stores, the office supplies corporation offers an online service in which users can upload a design and ship 3D prints directly to their home or office. French hardware store Leroy Merlin took DIY to a new level when it began offering shoppers the option to bring their creations to life right inside the store using 3D printers and soldering irons.

The future of smart tech in retail

While there’s only a handful of retail use cases in 3D printing today, increased demand is driving organizations to invest and begin rolling out new programs. Here are a few benefits of 3D printing we expect will rock retail over the coming decades:

  • A decrease in production costs will increase profit margins. Currently, the supply chain consists of suppliers, manufacturers, distributors, and retailers. With 3D printing, retailers can eliminate suppliers, manufacturers, and distributors by investing in raw material and creating products right inside their store or warehouse.
  • Small batch production will reduce inventory waste. Today, retailers are tasked with predicting consumer trends and purchasing products accordingly. One poor prediction can result in a surplus of inventory and, you guessed it, waste.
  • The opportunity for user-designed products will boost consumer demand for 3D printing. Certain companies, like Shapeways, offer consumers the opportunity to easily build their own products or shop for items created by other users. This type of business model may disrupt the entire fashion and design industry.
  • Spare parts printing will become a norm. Whether it’s a broken vacuum hose or a missing gas cap, hunting down and ordering proprietary parts for household items is rarely convenient. But 3D printing can make sure consumers can quickly access the exact part or piece they need, even if the brand has long since stopped manufacturing the product.

While 3D printing is still years from being common in the retail space, early adopters of smart tech in retail are already enjoying numerous benefits. By reshaping the supply chain, increasing convenience for consumers, and unlocking practically unlimited potential for modern product designers, it’s likely 3D printing will transform the retail industry forever.

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