Nicola Smith (Global) - How 3D Printing is Starting a Third Industrial Revolution

The first industrial revolution was powered by steam. The second was powered by steel, the birth of the automobile and the assembly line process. The third is just beginning to gather momentum, and it's driven by the democratization of the manufacturing process through additive manufacturing, which is widely known as 3D printing. The signs of this upcoming industrial revolution are so apparent - and so undeniable - that President Obama spoke to the potential power of 3D printing in his most recent State of the Union address.

If you're not familiar with 3D printing, here's a quick schooling. 3D printing is the process of making virtually any three-dimensional object out of any number of materials, including plastic, various metals, alloys and even chocolate. Similar to your ink jet printer, the objects are printed layer by layer. Objects with kinetic functionality, such as gears, can be printed as a single, functioning object with no assembly required. Objects can also be made from a combination of materials - plastic and metal, for example. We're rapidly approaching a day when it will be possible to print functioning electronic elements, which means we could eventually, in our own homes, print something as seemingly complex as a cell phone.

While the principles of 3D printing technology aren't exactly new, the last few years have thrust it into the limelight and given its viability in the consumer world a healthy push forward. Consumer-focused products such as Makerbot desktop 3D printers and RepRap open-source systems are paving the way for this method of manufacturing to rally support from a community of makers, tinkerers, entrepreneurs and developers.

And over the last year, a few bigger players have started to see the incredible amount of potential in this technology. In November of 2012, Staples announced that starting this year in select markets, they would begin rolling out 3D printing services in partnership with Mcor Technologies, with the intention of continuing the rollout globally.

Disney has also been experimenting with 3D printing as a way to deepen the bond between their fans and their characters. Now, for the fans that dream(ed) of being a princess, they can become one. Using Disney's D-Tech Me technology, princess figurines can be customized with your own face.

Yet behind the gimmicks lies real opportunity. 3D printing has the potential to dramatically reduce manufacturing costs and decentralize the manufacturing process, which then means a reduction in shipping and transportation costs and broader distribution. It also facilitates individualized product customization without the reliance on economies of scale. And, perhaps most importantly, it drives product innovation via rapid prototyping.

Still, for all the opportunity, 3D printing also introduces new challenges for brands - specifically as it relates to patent law. Most products are covered by patent law, which has a 20-year duration. Even so, users can (and will) print their own versions of objects and products. Look at it this way: Why would you ever spend money buying a set of Lego again when you could print blocks at home by simply downloading a CAD drawing from a peer-to-peer sharing site? To address this challenge, brands can begin to experiment with new business models that focus on selling product designs and CAD drawings. This will serve to satisfy the impending desire for customers to 3D print while also keeping the brand (and its solvency) in mind.

Those brands that can evolve to incorporate this disruptive technology will survive, and those that fight against the inevitable may find themselves losing relevancy rapidly. So ask yourself this on the cusp of our next industrial revolution: Is your brand ready for the future?

By Nicola Smith, Vice President of Innovation, Engauge


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