I’m intrigued by 3D printing. It feels like there might be something in it. It could revolutionise business models and customer experiences in a way that is almost as disruptive as ecommerce and digital have been.

You used to go to a shop to buy something; then you could phone to order it; then you could go online, or on your phone, to see it and buy it; but what if you could print it out at home? The potential implications are enormous. 

But how advanced is the technology? What are the actual use cases for it? And what are the opportunities for marketing? 

These questions have been sitting at the back of my mind for a while. And then five days ago I got an email from Ryman, the stationers, announcing the arrival of 3D printing and that they were doing demos at a store just around the corner from my office:

This somewhat surprised me. Has 3D printing become that mainstream now that my local stationers is offering it as a service? Apparently so. My interest piqued I went along for the demo.

At the store I saw various objects that had been 3D printed – mostly single colour, but some up to three colours. Some of the objects were fabric-like, albeit PVA plastic. The printers can print interlocking meshes like chain-mail at a high level of granularity. You can buy a single colour 3D printer for about £1,000 and a scanner for around £300. Less than I’d have guessed.

But my friendly 3D printing store assistant suggested he do a 3D print of me. I didn’t realise that would be possible either so wanted to see what the quality was like.

Here’s a photo of me in the store:

I was then ‘scanned in’. This involved me sitting as still as possible whilst Mathieu, my Ryman 3D printing specialist, walked around me with a scanner that looked like a staple gun. It only took about 40 seconds.

This then created a 3D model of me that appeared on his computer screen:

Not the most flattering but clearly still me.

Mathieu had to then touch up the model a bit by erasing errant sections and smoothing others.

The model was then printed in a single colour and this process took six hours. So not quick. And this was a relatively low resolution scanner with a low resolution 3D model. Higher resolutions take more like 20 hours to print. Not exactly an efficient production line.

But I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the end result given this was all done with ‘consumer’ kit:

This model, about four inches high, did cost me £100. I think Ryman are probably just making the price up at the moment and don’t expect to make a lot of money printing things for people like this. If you can buy all the kit for around £1,300 then it doesn’t make much sense to pay £100 a go to print things out.

In this process an object, me, was scanned in to build the 3D model. You can scan pretty much anything (your pets?!) although the objects need to be of a reasonable size for it to work well. But, of course, you can create any model from scratch using 3D software if you have the skills.

Most interestingly there are iTunes-like platforms springing up online where you can find models that other people all around the world have created for you. Almost all are currently free.

This is, of course, fraught with intellectual property issues and these platforms are perhaps the Napsters of 3D printing at the moment. But the opportunity to get a model of *anything*, to create customised versions, to create building blocks that can be assembled into a greater whole is tantalising. And, yes, worrying (think weapons).

Back to my earlier questions… the technology is cheaper, better and easier to use than I thought. And of course things will only improve and get cheaper. But what about the (consumer) applications and use cases? And are there any opportunities for marketers using 3D printing?

I am compiling some thoughts on these questions. But for now I’d love to hear your experiences and your thoughts? Comment below – what use cases can you envisage? What creative marketing ideas does 3D printing inspire in you? Some kind of prize (your own 3D bust?) for the best suggestions!