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3D Printing and Personalized Manufacturing

The way we purchase goods and services is becoming more personalized. Retailers previously recognized the robust return on investment that came with the Internet of Things (IoT) and Big Data, but now customers are beginning to see the value of a personalized focus. 3D printing is poised to make an entrance into the world of customer-centered decision making. Once fully adopted, 3D printing will enable retailers to manufacture goods tailored to actual individuals, not just key demographics.

3D Printing: Harness the Power of Personalization

In terms of the technology adoption cycle, 3D printing is still far from the mainstream. But trends in 3D printing suggest that it eventually will be focused on personalized manufacturing. Twitter’s cofounder Biz Stone recently said that Nike could become a software company in 10 years, a transformation that would be due in large part to 3D printing. Imagine “The Jetsons” come to life: Did your son outgrow his favorite pair of Nikes? Get the blueprints and print out a brand new pair in the next size at your neighborhood 3D Kinko’s.

Manufacturing and personalization seem like mutually exclusive terms. But I foresee a world in which they share a symbiotic relationship. In a sense, 3D printing moves the supply chain one step closer to the consumer. Say you’re at home and your dryer stops working. Today’s supply chain requires a phone call to the manufacturer, who puts in an order for the defective part. After a two-week shipping period (and not a single pair of clean socks in sight), your part arrives at your door.

In the world of 3D printing, you could simply download the part plans online and print the part immediately. An enterprising do-it-yourselfer could have the dryer repaired hours after the part malfunctions, saving money, time, and the discomfort of wearing your socks inside out. The workload for 3D printed goods is more localized and much more efficient.

Of course, 3D printing’s applications go far beyond retail. This innovation will one day create the ultimate in personalized health care by printing human organs based on an individual’s DNA. Today, recipients of donor organs are carefully screened to assure the best possible match based on blood type and numerous other factors. Even with intense scrutiny, though, recipients are often on immune-system suppressing drugs for the rest of their lives to minimize the chance of their bodies rejecting the donor organs. One day, patients will be able to receive organ transplants that are meant to thrive in their bodies, possibly eliminating the need for immune-suppressing drugs.

Winners and Losers in the 3D Printing Revolution

As with all major technological upheavals, change brings about winners and losers. In the case of 3D printing, I see small businesses as some of the biggest beneficiaries. With little equity, these enterprises often struggle to keep their manufacturing within the margins they need to experience growth. 3D printing effectively cuts out the middleman, allowing smaller companies to thrive. After an initial investment, they will also tailor goods and services to consumers. In a way, they’re even more equipped to handle personalization than a larger conglomerate like Nike, especially when we consider the power small businesses have to harness customer service—a topic I discussed earlier this year.

So who are the losers in this scenario? My guess is the mass manufacturers themselves. Those on the supply chain who actually produce the mass-marketed goods that we see in stores today will have to adjust to the new demand for personalization. At an even bigger risk are those who ship and distribute cargo. FedEx, UPS, and other services that ship goods by land or air are especially vulnerable to the 3D printing revolution. PWC estimates that 40 percent of shippers are directly threatened by this scenario.

Though these are exciting possibilities, 3D printing is still early in its adoption cycle. It will be a while before we can head to a local 3D printing store to order new shoes. It will be even longer until we can print organs based on our DNA (which will, in turn, provoke ethical discussions about life span). In the meantime, expect 3D printing to leave its mark through personalization.

This article was brought to you in part by HP, Inc. Opinions and thoughts are those of the author. 

photo credit: Troy Nachtigall’s 3D via photopin (license)

Daniel Newman

After 12 years of running technology companies including a CEO appointment at the age of 28, I traded the corner office for a chance to drive the discussion on how the digital economy is going to forever change how business is done. I'm an MBA, adjunct business professor and 5x author of best-selling business books including "The Millennial CEO" and "The New Rules of Customer Engagement." Pianist, soccer fan, husband and father, not in that order. Oh and for work...I'm the CEO of Broadsuite Media Group and President of V3 Broadsuite, a family of marketing and media agencies that help companies be found, seen and heard in a cluttered digital world. I also give keynote speeches around the world on the topics such as digital transformation, technology and marketing.