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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!

Ashley Friedlein

Published 30 July, 2014 by Ashley Friedlein @ Econsultancy

Ashley Friedlein is Founder of Econsultancy and President of Centaur Marketing. Follow him on Twitter (7,100+ followers) or connect via LinkedIn (7,500+ connections) or Google+.

85 more posts from this author

Comments (16)

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Matt Owen

Matt Owen, Head of Social at Econsultancy

A bit obvious, but I'm strongly inclined to think this could revolutionise fashion retail in the near future (let's say five-ten years), once home printers are up to scratch - and they very nearly are.

The opportunity is there for high street retailers, but I think that pureplays like Threadless would probably be quickest to capitalise on this. Consumers, equipped with a cotton (or possibly a synthetic like TYVEK) printer cartridge would order online, and have a garment pattern sent directly to their printer so that they can print it out at home.

There's also the possibility of recycling materials for re-use if you are paying for design rather than primarily for base materials. Sign up, buy one T-Shirt, then when you're tired of it, stick it in the recycler and have it reprinted with a new pattern.

This sort of model also leaves plenty of room for experiential shopping, without the hassle of hauling all those bags home at the end of it.

almost 2 years ago

Ben Davis

Ben Davis, Senior Writer at EconsultancyStaff

Some very limited ideas:

-Collectibles/rewards. My Coke can has a QR or similar. I scan it and the printer gives me a model of Wayne Rooney.

-Put the early learning centre out of business
http://goo.gl/ms8Ny4

-On larger scale, bikes (no adjustable parts needed - Halfords et al know my fully grown height and arm length so can print a one piece frame and then attach wheels and brakes - no more tightening bolts).

-Keys (a blueprint is saved and if I am locked out I can go to any printer with the blueprint on my phone and print a new one - obvious security issues to get round and the whole thing could be supplanted by IoT).

-Gifting from afar. A superior fax machine based on photographs. i.e. I can send someone's 3D printer a pic of me standing in a touristic tableaux (dumb idea)

-Car parts (often discontinued, can be produced forever if printed in suitable material)

-Dead pets (better than a photograph, carry Fido with you in miniature long after he has passed)

-Dead relatives (ditto, sorry to be morbid)

almost 2 years ago

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Michael Crenshaw

This has been a fascination of mine since I had the pleasure to design some models and print them while still in university in 2006. At that time the university was one of the only places you could get that kind of experience, and it was still somewhat crude and expensive. I've been keeping tabs ever since, especially since home printers have really come down and cost and gone up in quality, and have been fascinated to see;

In the medical field printing ball and socket type joints to one day use as hip and elbow replacements is being experimented with.

In the construction field they are experimenting with large scale (think crane sized) printers that can print entire houses from the ground up.

In the technology field they are looking into printing nanochips and microchips.

Basically if you can dream it, you can print it.

almost 2 years ago

Craig Hanna

Craig Hanna, Digital Business Consultant at Econsultancy.comSmall Business Multi-user

Most new technologies need an killer app that both disrupts and creates the revenue to drive ongoing innovation and creates a virtuous cycle.

I think there is almost nothing that can't in the end be printed given that people are experimenting with metals, plastic, fabric and even organic materials. But what will be first.

Three factors will probably define the killer app

1. Speed. I need it now so its worth paying more for than waiting for the warehouse version. Medical applications would be examples here. I've lost my ear in a car accident but my body scan is on file. There are lots of "emergency" applications

2. Personalisation. There are so many possible variations that it makes sense to print individually. Again medical applications come to mind but so do spare parts for complex machinery or prototyping.

3. Distorted market economics. Anywhere where a monopolistic supply chain has created pricing that doesn't reflect the value of the item. Car parts are an example of this. Obviously there may be IP issues and I see court cases ahead but it will be hard to stop. Being able to print your new headlight cover for $30 in your garage is appealing.

Overall the dynamics of globalisation may change given that production of many items, currently produced offshore in low costs production centres in Asia, will potentially be brought onshore again. This change could have profound effect on global markets and power. Interesting times.

almost 2 years ago

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Ed Flynn

We have been very actively experimenting with 3D printing at our agency for the last year and a half and though I can't go into specifics there are few key things we have learned.

Consumers are becoming very interested in the technology. They love the "magical" like capability it presents but are wary of how complicated it seams to be. We are faced with how to manage and capitalize on perceptions in the face of what the realities of the technologies are.

When we run people through the steps of what takes to make something like a vase that magical quality diminishes rapidly and we get a lot of questions like - "why would i do all this? I could run to the store and back and get a nicer version of this in half the time it took to make and print this." "This is very cool but I don't know what I would want to print." "I don't know anything about 3D, how do I know if I'm doing it right?"

We don't think there is going to be a printer in every home. In fact we see very much a parallel path to the fate of the home photo printer. That device had even fewer limitations, users just had to buy special paper and ink and set up prints with some moderately easy software and look where its at now. Not many people have one of these printers or print photos at home. It's easier to have someone do that for them. Hence we feel that focusing on service partners and working out marketing opportunities with them is going to provide a friendly and more robust consumer experience.

Marketers need to understand that in the current and near term 3D printing ecosystem any marketing program will need to be positioned as an exclusive and premium experience due to logistics, scaling and cost.

almost 2 years ago

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, CTO at Fresh Relevance

I've seen lots of examples of this technology and there are great medical applications - for example a structural framework for growing a replacement ear that's a match for the person's other one.

But I think it misses the point for two reasons:

(1) The IT revolution means that one industry after another is going virtual. It started with the paperless office, then the newspaper industry, then the rest of media and so on.

We're steadily buying less physical "stuff", so I see these 3D printers as similar to "blu-ray". Yes, they could take off, but by the time they do most of their applications will have become virtual.

(2) Imagine printing anything sophisticated, e.g. electronics. You can't get away with the sort of low-res result shown in this article, because circuitry has too much detail. You need an extremely high res result.

But 3D printers work one layer at a time, so the higher the resolution the slower they go.

For a long, long time, it will be quicker to buy anything sophisticated online, with next-day delivery.

almost 2 years ago

Mark Thompson

Mark Thompson, VP Business Development at Econsultancy, Centaur MarketingStaff

I can get a mini me for $25 already from

https://www.mixeelabs.com/ amongst other things.

I read an interesting article about the 5 things already available on Amazon

http://gizmodo.com/the-5-best-things-you-can-buy-from-amazons-3d-printing-1612788499

While non of these are revolutionary, they are competitively priced for a novelty item

almost 2 years ago

Ashley Friedlein

Ashley Friedlein, Founder, Econsultancy & President, Centaur Marketing at Econsultancy, Centaur MarketingStaff

All good stuff... thanks all and keep the ideas coming.

It is certainly the case that currently the whole process is too slow and requires too much expertise (e.g. in touching up 3D models in software) to catch on in a consumer context.

However, even in the last week I've had:
- A small plastic part break in my Crocs sandals
- A small plastic part, a fan, break in my fridge
- A small plastic part break in my bin (Brabantia)

All of these breakages are for simple plastic parts but all have rendered the whole broken. Currently I have to send off for parts which is a) boring b) takes too long and c) expensive.

In the future I'd hope to go the manufacturer's website (or perhaps a retailer like Amazon), find the part/3D model, and just print it out. Fixed.

almost 2 years ago

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Alex

I like all the ideas, but I am thinking major brands that could be extinct in the next 5 years from 3D printing, two I can think of straight away are:

Lego - Why would I pay £30 for a Lego kit when I could get a perfectly scanned replica from the internet and print it out at home with the correctly colored blocks for under £3?

Games workshop - Deals in miniature figures, again this seems like the first business that could be hit by 3D printing. Print a perfect replica of all their modals at home for a fraction of the price. It's only time before their entire catalog is available online (it already could be).

almost 2 years ago

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, CTO at Fresh Relevance

@Alex: That's piracy. I expect many people will choose to pirate their lego and games workshop figures using 3D printing, but others will prefer to buy the real thing with the proper packaging.

It's been possible to photocopy game rules for the entire lifetime of Games Workshop, yet they survive, so I expect they'll survive this type of copying too. They are very quite litigious btw:
http://boingboing.net/2013/02/06/games-workshop-trademark-bully.html

But a much bigger risk for both companies is competition from virtual products - see my point (1) above:

* Lego is at risk from minecraft - most people who would have been playing with real-world bricks 20 years ago are playing with virtual bricks online.

* Games Workshop faces competition from over a million online games and apps.

almost 2 years ago

Andrew Lloyd Gordon

Andrew Lloyd Gordon, Digital Marketing Expert, Speaker and Trainer at New Terrain Limited

Great article Ashley. Thanks for generating debate.

I think we're looking at 3D printing the way Kodak and others looked at the first digital photographs. Those early digital images were pretty awful and were no comparison to the (by then) glories of colour photography. Similarly, I think many of us see the output of current 3D printers and think, 'meh'.

But this misses the longer term trend.

Although additive manufacturing/3D printing has been around a little while (@Michael's 2006 experience for example) we are just at the start of this revolution.

As with the digital revolution, 3D printing will both create and destroy jobs and upend whole industries.

Whilst it won't replace all forms of manufacturing (mass production is still awesome) it promises to give us the 'personalised experience economy' that we've heard so much about - from printed bone tissue and organs, through to art, shoes, jewellery and even food.

But what really fascinates me is that, as with all similar revolutions, everyone gets it wrong at the start. For example, when the electric motor was developed, 'experts' predicted every home would have one huge electric generator that would power all devices. Little did they realise that there'd be tiny motors in things like your electric toothbrush!

We're probably falling into the same mental trap of extrapolating the present into the future (notice how on the early Star Treks, crews in the far future would apparently be operating computers with dials, knobs and flashing lights! Just like the contemporary computers of the 1960s/70s).

When 3D printing becomes mainstream, and is present in most homes, schools, offices and workplaces, and when we've all been scanned-in like Ashley has, that's when it will get interesting!

3D printing will start to change the world around us as people (Artificial Intelligence?) print 'things' we don't even know we need yet.

Long live the revolution :)

almost 2 years ago

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Video Production Sydney

3D printing is interesting. We were recently asked to produce a commercial for chocolate 3D printing. It's amazing how far technology has come and it's scary to think what the future will be like.

almost 2 years ago

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Tami Iseli, Content Creator, The Media Pad

The idea that Matt Owen (above) speaks of, in relation to high street retail, is pretty close to a reality now. The main limitation is in the materials that are currently available for 3D printing - mostly plastics and metals. There are, however, some clothing and shoe manufacturers who are currently experimenting with the technology.

I wrote a blog piece on this topic last week if anyone is interested in checking it out: http://www.clickfrenzy.com.au/blog/2014/7/28/future-of-retail-clothes-shopping-jetsons-style

almost 2 years ago

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Aaron Garrett

Thanks for sharing your article it help us in future.

almost 2 years ago

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Sam Singh

3d printing is fascinating. We were as of late approached to deliver a business for chocolate 3d printing. It's astonishing how far engineering has come and its terrifying to think what the future will be similar to.

almost 2 years ago

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michealmoore03

This 3D printer is really very effective thing is discovered as in this we can easily make out the things which are there in our mind and can be easily make it out in real. This is really a very creative thing.

almost 2 years ago

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