I recently did a presentation at a 3d print conference on disrupting mass market retail, what was going wrong, and why retail wasn't tipping as fast as everyone thought it would. This presentation was definitely more "insider information" but it continues the disruption conversation around 3d print and what it's really going to take to hit that tipping point.

My experience with product design and launch allows me an inside plus outside perspective that is often overlooked when it comes to retail. When people ask me why we can't just go buy everything on-demand 3d printed today, I tell them one (or all) of these 5 things:

  1. Most products fail before automation like this is ever an option. Only two percent of inventions ever make money, fourteen out of fifteen shopping channel products fail, seven out of ten overall consumer products fail.

  2. Few mass market retailers have product design staff. Shelves are stocked, decisions are made, products are purchased, without someone who is an expert ever being involved. Big box retailers rely on their vendors or direct shopping in China, Malaysia, etc. for their product design.

  3. Whimsical, cheap, un-useful designs are creating a perception gap. People don't understand the full scale 3d printing could offer because they don't get to see it. The designs out there right now are not representative of the possibilities. Etsy shouldn't be the end goal. We can do so much better and so much more with what we have.

  4. There's a national skills gap. Retail will have no choice but to bring back their product experts, stylists, or merchandising staff, and to have designers connecting with manufacturers, so they can see the process they are disrupting. The skills gap is being driven by a lack of understanding of where these roads will converge.

  5. There aren't enough women involved. New research from the Network of Executive Women shows that there is a significant female leadership crisis. In my experience, it is not just in leadership. In the past decade going to China, I have never seen a female designer. Yet 85 percent of the consumer shopping base is female. Could this be why so many products fail?

The Most Common 3D Print Questions

Based on questions asked at the recent SXSW 2018 live WTFFF?! 3d printing podcast from the TuneIn stage, there are a few common readiness questions:

Are consumers ready? You know, when we make something that is injection molded, we don't label it as produced that way. 3d printing isn't tipping into the mainstream, because we won't let it. Consumers aren't going to care, one  way or the other how it is made, if the design is right, the price is right, and the product works.

Is it fast enough? Not yet. But it is getting there. I am seeing more and more businesses dedicate their time and effort to growing these processes along with the finishes, materials, and design capabilities so that when the speed matches the quality, they can hit the ground running.

Isn't traditional manufacturing less expensive? When you take into consideration the rising cost per SKU, the insurance, the security, the shelf space, for most product categories, the cost will level off. Now, maybe furniture is not ready for disruption because of the size, but most other markets, are ready for disruption, and will see the cost drop off eventually, as we allow the disruption to happen.

It All Comes Back to Good Design

As retailers face the disruption ahead, we all need to look at the importance of the product expert, and the designer, to save time and money, and to let the disruption happen. We cannot continue as we are, because the cost alone is forcing retailers to close their doors. 3d printing is offering retail an opportunity of a lifetime, to significantly upgrade their manufacturing process, and to start peeling back the rising costs to be in retail.

If we can integrate where people are already shopping, leverage that consumer access, and match the quality they are used to, we will finally tip into retail. 3d printing is a retail reality, if we want it to be.

Published on: Mar 26, 2018