3D Printer: 21st Century Industrial Revolution?

A revolutionary production process changes the contemporary understanding of brands. The introduction of 3D printing is shifting the production of objects from the factory to the home. It enables consumers to free themselves from traditional suppliers and gives them the choice to follow their own acquisition strategy. Due to this development, brands need to redefine their status as well as their sovereignty of production.

This year, renowned art institution Ars Electronica and Volkswagen AG will once again exhibit a joint project at Volkswagen Automobil Forum Unter den Linden in Berlin. This year‘s theme „Impuls + Bewegung“ (Impulse + Movement) raises the issue of how consumers today are caught between self-determination and disempowerment, especially in urban spaces. One of the exhibits examines an everyday object from this angle – a shoe. What is so special about it? It is neither custom-made over many hours, nor one among many massproduced shoes. This shoe is printed.„‘Melonia Shoes‘ are made entirely of polyamide and produced by 3D printing. The shoes are built in one piece and, in case the owner does not like them anymore, can be reproduced by melting the material and re-using it for new ones. The striking shoes already proofed their functionality at this year‘s Stockholm fashion show.“

Printing is the new manufacturing

Three-dimensional printing is not new; it has been applied in science and industry for years. But due to advances in technology it is now becoming increasingly relevant for private customers. It is as easy as this: what can be printed with ink on paper, can also be printed using solid materials such as plastics, metal powder, gypsum or synthetic resin. Using a laser and powder, objects are being built, micrometer-thin layer by layer. All one needs is a set of data.

What used to require a couple of machines and materials can now be replaced by a single 3D printer.3D printers are mainly used for small repair parts such as screws and nuts, however, there seems to be no limit when it comes to the size of the print. Italian inventor and engineer Enrico Dini of Pisa developed a 3D printer called ’D-Shape‘ with which he printed an entire house within a week. His next printing job: a moon base. Printing in three-dimensional space will revolutionise the process of production, according to Neil Gershenfeld, Head of the Centre for Bits and Atoms at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): “3D printing technology will not only redefine the balance of power in industrial manufacturing, but also shock the economic world as a whole.” On one hand, objects can be produced easily and with yet unused materials (e.g. Enrico Dini‘s house), which also promotes a simplified distribution into the markets. Corporations thus profit from efficiency and cost benefits due to the lack of production, storage and delivery costs and the accompanying reduced CO2 emissions. On the other hand, now everyone is able to own a small manufacturing line at home. Printers for private use are becoming \more affordable;

current prices start at 400 USD, going up to 15,000 USD for the ‘Designjet 3D‘ by Hewlett-Packard. With this model, it is possible to print any plastic item, layer by layer, up to the size of a shoebox.

Original in danger?

3D printers in industrial settings raise the issue of simplified production processes. However, we are more interested in looking at the domestic environment: What impact do 3D printers have on products, companies and brands if everyone is suddenly able to print products at home with very little effort? What does it mean if one doesn’t want to order the earrings from an online shop and wait for them to arrive int he mail, but would rather simply print them? Imagine the new iPhone earbuds are just a click away and don‘t necessitate a search for the closest licensed Apple retailer. And who would still be buying Lego blocks, if one was able to print them? This is mainly related to copyright protection and its effect on brands. So how can brands protect themselves if suddenly everyone is able to print their own RayBan sunglasses at home (and therefore realises that its production only costs a fraction of the retail price)? 3D printing enriches the tension between consumer’s self-determination and disempowerment with the possibility to produce single ob- jects. Altered distribution strategies in music and automotive industries. The music industry witnessed the sovereignty of consumers a while ago and did not come out unscathed. Youtube, Napster and their illegal companions began to offer music for free. Infuriated, music producers punished illegal downloaders with horrendous fines (from which little or nothing went back to the artist), and demonised these new practices. It took them a while to realise that not disempowerment, but empowerment of the consumer allows for a solution. An empowered consumer may not want to buy a physical CD featuring a complete album, but rather one track, available via one click and for a fair price. Only new distribution channels and adaptation to consumer demands led to the success of iTunes, Spotify and Co.

The automotive industry ignored the emancipation of the consumer almost completely. Independent car-sharing service providers and trainsharing have been successful in recent years, car rentals are increasing and car purchases are declining – especially in urban areas. The car is losing its image as status symbol and is facing the environmental debate. Big car manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz and BMW recently introduced in-house car sharing services to counteract this situation. This allows the client to use a car, according to his needs, without purchasing it. The car manufacturer thus turns more and more into a mobility service provider. New trends in value added. These two examples demonstrate a new process of democratisation: music for all, cars for all, availability on demand and cost per consumption. Brands are losing their image as status symbols in an increasing number of fields; often, a brand now is simply a means to an end. So what comes next? The democratisation of design and production?
We will investigate tomorrow‘s consumer trends.

Trend 1: On Demand | Align with consumer emancipation

The trend of ‘on demand‘ consumption is influenced by a new mindset, which was formed by the spread of apps. One click and the customer gets exactly what he is looking for; this has become standard today and its influence is beginning to reach further than digital world. In order for brands to protect themselves and their products, they must react to consumers‘ needs. Successful brands place the consumer in focus and build the value chain around him. Instead of just offering a product to the customer, the consumer must be integrated into the production process. Stephen Denning, inventor of the ‘Radical Management’ concept, underlines this trend: “The true bottom line of any business – and the key to an enduring future – is whether customers are delighted. Delighting customers means continuously providing new value for customers sooner, so that they are willing to buy the firm’s goods and services, not just today but also tomorrow. It goes beyond mere transactions; it‘s about forging relationships.” 1

Trend 2: Co-Creation & Sharing Provide customers with freedom

To continuously grow as a brand, the feedback of consumers is becoming more essential. By being included, the user gets the empowerment which is so important today. This results in a stronger relationship between consumer and brand. Similar to the music and car-sharing industries, consumers initiated this by establishing sharing platforms. Similarly, in the field of 3D printing, there exists a couple of ‘copy shops’. They are called ‘Shapeways‘, ‘Sculpteo‘, ‘i.materialise‘, ‘Rapidobject‘, ‘Ponoko‘ or ‘Fabberhouse‘ and print almost everything: from self-designed jewelry to missing game pieces to coffee cups and spare parts (except for objects like coins, which could be seen as forgery). Thus, these are either copies of existing objects or personal creations. thingiverse.com is a platform for sharing con- struction data and selling personal designs. This pool can be used as an innovation platform to establish new distribution channels together with the users. This is essential today, as Neil Gershenfeld from MIT, underlines: “he who dismisses this new technology as a simple gadget did not understand the potential of change.“ 2

Trend 3: Freemium | Leave appreciation to the customers

Brands can either co-develop products together with (potential) customers, or simply provide them with printing patterns for whole objects or individual parts. This way copyrights will stay within the company, but the consumer does not feel left out. Here, the so-called ‘Freemium‘ concept becomes important: while a certain set of data is for free, prices apply and rise with increasing added value. This is also a learned principle as shown by paid premium services like apps or online memberships. There can be cheap products that are either close to the original or complement it. But to get the original branded product, the full price must be paid – which will still be below the retail price, as the costs for distribution, human resources etc. are left out. In the future, it will be up to companies to offer the consumer a benefit or incentive to make him buy inside a shop.

Made by you and me

In a perfect world, a user pays for and downloads printing data for RayBan sunglasses, fills a material – in the color of his choice – into the printer, and conveniently prints the sunglasses. The same applies for Lego blocks – Lego provides the data for spare parts in its own 3D copy shop (e.g. via a code found inside the already purchased prod- uct). Or a user discovers a slightly different design of the earrings from her favorite shop that she likes even better than the original and which is, even better, for free. These are easily printed and draw positive feedback from her friends, creating further sales. This is to the benefit of the designer, who can now – due to increasing demand – ask for a little fee for the earring design. This example demonstrates that the inclusion of consumers is very much worth it. Whoever fears rampant plagiarism and sees the original branded product endangered should reflect if cheap copies of RayBans in tourist shops could seriously threaten the original. Maybe it’s not so much brands that need to fear financial loss – it may rather be the label “Made in China” which might soon disappear.

Written by Katharina Hahn (2012)