3D (Retail) World?

I’ve been fortunate enough to spend extended periods of time in the USA on research leave and exchanges. In each case we have gained enormously from the experiences in so many ways. We have also gained in more functional ways. From our period at Florida State, I realised that however much I did not want to pay more for TV, if I wanted sport and films I would have to add to my then 5 TV channels. And from Tennessee we discovered home bread making and on arriving back bought a machine which has been in almost constant use since.

Anyhow, after seven years of use, one part of the bread maker has broken. It still works well in basic mode but if I want to get clever with bread then I can’t. After investigation it became clear that a small part had snapped and all would be well if I could replace it. And that’s where the fun started!

Panasonic don’t make the replacement part so you can’t simply buy one from them or anyone else it seems. Web trawling produced no resellers. And then I stumbled across Shapeways – a 3D printing marketplace. And buried on their site is the opportunity to have the errant Panasonic part produced on demand in their 3D production factory. So I did, and it arrived and works. Bread creativity is restored.  My only gripe would be the excessive packaging used in transit which makes Amazon looks positively parsimonious on cardboard and plastic.

So one happy customer. Given that the only other time 3D printing had registered with me was the news story a few months ago about 3D printing your own gun, I had thought that 3D printing was a fad or a gimmick. Now I am not so sure.

And in thinking about it, I came across the story in Retail Week from early July which asked exactly that question – is 3D printing the latest technological fad? In reading that article I was struck with some parallels with RFiD – 3D printing is not a new technology, it has had to wait for miniaturization, costs reductions in materials, and some people with real problems to solve. Maybe it will follow the same trajectory – hype, disillusion and then realism over its value.

But Shapeways – and the part designer  – have solved my problem. They’ve produced a (almost) one-off for me, with the potential to reproduce it for others who need the same part (in fact I was the follower here) on demand. This is actually really interesting in a number of ways and must have real potential.

Whilst 3D printers will be in shops this Christmas, they are not this year’s tablet. They are far more complex and complicated than that, but for some they might be the step into creativity and production. Looking round the Shapeways site you see one-off designers, mad products, unique designs and other customer opportunities. There is something here about this technology and its retail potential, and it will be fascinating to see where this goes.

If all else fails for Christmas of course, you could go along to the Selfridges pop-up shop which is going to offer 3D printed miniature figures. Ten seconds to be body scanned and then a few days later a unique model can be ready to give to your loved one. I hope that falls into the gimmick category … but for now I am off to bake some bread.

About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues. I am Chair of Scotland's Towns Partnership. I am also a Deputy Principal of the University, with responsibility for Education and Students.
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3 Responses to 3D (Retail) World?

  1. Practical as well as interesting comments there. Also timely for me as I recently initiated discussion on the theme in the RSA and ‘Made in Scotland’ Linkedin groups. Discussion tended to divide (polarise?) between those who perceive a whole new era in design and manufacturing processes, and those who see gimmicks and a next-big-idea already fizzling out.

    I, meantime, also read an article in a USA business strategy journal describing how micro businesses in the back streets of South East Asia are just getting on with making it happen.

    My developing view is that 3d printing is something significant (as you say it is not in fact a ‘new’ technology but has been in the making for some time). I think that it will probably engender a new global paradigm around design and manufacturing – and by extension around what we currently understand as retail.

    Is Scotland going to be up for this?

  2. Leigh Sparks says:

    The things that struck me were the aspects of customisation/personalisation, production on demand (if the design is captured/built) which must have some stock holding benefits, the scope for rapid prototyping (which I guess has been there for a while) and the potential for sharing/common production facilities (which raises interesting collaboration, location and support issues).

    Will it change the world? Doubt it, anytime soon. But might there be some potential? Absolutely from my experience and from talking to others.

    Is Scotland ready? £64k question …

  3. Fiorito, Susan says:

    Loved to read this. I have been curious about the 3D printer. Very interesting.
    Hope all is going well for you and Jan.
    You are in my thoughts and prayers,

    Susan S. Fiorito, PhD
    College of Business
    Florida State University

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