Machines operated by computers can produce unique items of every conceivable shape by using 3D printing. A laser beam builds the object out of a liquid or powder (plastic, metal or organic). This technology has turned whole industries upside down. Manufacturers have begun producing new prototypes and parts faster than ever before, and newcomers are leaving established businesses reeling from the disruption.  Spare parts no longer need to be ordered from outside suppliers, companies such as Siemens can print machine parts onsite. Retailers and consumers will be able to benefit from faster, cheaper and more made-to-measure goods being produced in the future.

Consultants at Baker & McKenzie believe the global market for 3D applications will increase from 2.5 billion to 16.2 billion dollars in 2018. The medical industry, for one, already uses this technology to print artificial heart valves. It is but a matter of time before hearing aids, hip replacements and artificial knees come rolling out of 3D printers – so says Gartner, at least. Just recently, a 3D-printed concrete bridge was opened in the Netherlands. Built up of some 800 layers of concrete, it is the first of its kind. One of the scientists involved in the project said: “The bridge is not very big, but it was rolled out by a printer, which makes it unique.”

More frivolous items are but a click away, too. In the UK, supermarket chain ASDA has set up its own 3D printing service. You can print anything from a miniature likeness of yourself to personalzed smartphone covers and simple jewelry. Shoe manufacturer Nike is certain that it’s only a matter of time before consumers come to stores to print the Flyknit sneakers they designed at home to match their personal specifications.

Retail is likely to be revolutionized by this technology, that is a safe prediction to make. Shopping streets will see dedicated 3D printing stores popping up, where people can buy the 3D printers or have items printed that they ordered online, at home.

International marketplaces are wild with excitement over 3D as well. Shapeways and Sculpteo are two platforms where you can order 3D-printed items. Creative Commons is a place for sharing designs, and Home 3D Printing offers designs for people who want to print at home. Yeggi and Fabforall are two specialized 3D search engines, for finding 3D files online. There are even hybrid 3D webstores that offer a virtual one-stop shop, with all the options. Last but not least, tech retail titan Amazon has embraced this new technology, even applying for a patent on a 3D printing on demand mobile delivery truck.

In the future, 3D printing web stores will go beyond jewelry, toy figures and phone covers and actually start offering homewares such as lamps, picture frames and chairs. What about objets d’art or fashion items? Fashion-forward Dutch designer Iris van Herpen even launched a 3D couture collection, with outfits printed in this technology. These new online stores have two key characteristics: they offer small and affordable print runs and excel at personalizing their products. Possibly the greatest revolution brought by 3D printing is not the technology, but the possibility to turn production into something local and close to home. The effects for world trade will be overwhelming in due time. According to ING printed goods could already wipe out 40% of world imports in 2040 and world trade will be 23% lower in 2060 if the growth of investment in 3D printers continue at the current pace.

Now, the future is just waiting to be built, or should I say, to be 3D-printed?

Next week: the robots are coming! (11)

Blogs from my book

This is blog 10, based on my book ‘The end of online shopping. The future of retail in an always connected world’, published by Business Contact (Dutch/Flemish editions), Nubiz (English edition) Post & Telecom Publishers, Beijing (Chinese edition, from Q1 2018). The book will also be translated into Danish, German, Italian and Portuguese in 2018.