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3D printing tech in retail is changing the game

When it comes to smart tech in retail, few advancements will likely be as revolutionary as 3D printing. While this innovation is poised to shake up the entire supply chain, it can also offer much-needed sustainability to struggling retailers and provide consumers unprecedented flexibility.

In theory, 3D printing sounds like the perfect solution. Is there anything more exciting in this instant gratification-loving society than having exactly what you want, exactly when and where you want it? No boxes of inventory, no pesky shipping wait times—just near-immediate access to products entirely customized to a shopper’s expectations. But what’s the reality of 3D printing in the retail space, and what will the future bring?

Is retail in peril?

Online shopping has wreaked havoc on brick-and-mortar retailers’ bottom lines. With roughly 76 percent of Canadians shopping online, e-commerce innovators aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. To stay afloat, many retail giants are pivoting to embrace digital trends. In June, for instance, Sears Canada announced it would be closing 59 stores and cutting 2,900 jobs due to pressure from e-commerce.

But 3D printing—along with other rapidly advancing tech, like the Internet of Things and beacon technology—can save storefronts by enhancing and personalizing the consumer experience.

3D printing in retail today

When 3D printing emerged in the tech scene a few years ago, it was astonishingly futuristic, expensive, and seemingly impractical for any industry outside aerospace engineering. In 2014, Gartner predicted consumer 3D printing was more than five years away—and even that seemed far-fetched. Now, organizations are already leveraging this smart tech in retail.

One of the most successful pioneers in retail 3D printing is Staples. In addition to offering 3D printing services in a select number of stores, the office supplies corporation offers an online service in which users can upload a design and ship 3D prints directly to their home or office.

The future of smart tech in retail

While there’s only a handful of retail use cases in 3D printing today, increased demand is driving organizations to invest and begin rolling out new programs. Here are a few benefits of 3D printing we expect will rock retail over the coming decades:

  • A decrease in production costs will increase profit margins. Right now, the supply chain consists of suppliers, manufacturers, distributors, and retailers. With 3D printing, retailers can eliminate suppliers, manufacturers, and distributors by investing in raw material and creating products right inside their store or warehouse.

  • Small batch production will reduce inventory waste. Today, retailers are tasked with predicting consumer trends and purchasing products accordingly. One poor prediction can result in a surplus of inventory and—you guessed it—waste.

  • The opportunity for user-designed products will boost consumer demand for 3D printing. Certain companies, like Shapeways, offer consumers the opportunity to easily build their own products or shop for items created by other users. This type of business model may disrupt the entire fashion and design industry.

  • Spare parts printing will become a norm. Whether it’s a broken vacuum hose or a missing gas cap, hunting down and ordering proprietary parts for household items is rarely convenient. 3D printing can make sure consumers can quickly access the exact part or piece they need, even if the brand has long since stopped manufacturing the product.

While 3D printing is still years from being common in the retail space, early adopters of smart tech in retail are already enjoying tons of benefits. By reshaping the supply chain, increasing convenience for consumers, and unlocking practically unlimited potential for modern product designers, it’s likely 3D printing will transform the retail industry forever.

Next-gen tech steps up to the plate

Some next-gen technology has been on the verge of going mainstream for years but never quite seemed to make it—until now. 3D printing, virtual reality (VR), and artificial intelligence (AI) have finally arrived.

The Spiceworks 2017 State of IT report, which surveyed almost 900 IT decision-makers, lists these technologies at the bottom in terms of technology trends adoption. That’s unsurprising, given their nascent status and the fact that companies struggle to understand their commercial potential. But the market is starting to show enough interest to make them significant, and the level of tech development in each of these fields is stunning.

According to the report, 7 percent of respondents currently use 3D printing, with another 5 percent plan on using it. Four percent already use VR, with another 3 percent coming on board soon. Just 2 percent of respondents use AI, with another 3 percent planning to use it—although this may be a special case. AI is increasingly embedded behind the scenes as an enabling technology in applications and services that don’t necessarily foreground it as a feature.

How have these technologies developed in the last few years, and which companies lead the pack?

3D printing

3D printing’s been around since the invention of stereolithography in the early ’80s, but it was traditionally restricted to large firms that could afford the expensive industrial equipment. Then, the first open-source, self-replicating printer, the RepRap, was designed. In 2010, MakerBot debuted its 3D printer, followed in 2013 by Formlabs with its Form 1.

As desktop 3D printing evolved, so did the techniques. MakerBot uses deposition printing, which involves layers of material printed atop each other. Conversely, Formlabs brought stereolithography to the lower end of the enterprise market. In 2016, the industry moved on. MakerBot was acquired by high-end material jetting firm Stratasys in 2013, leaving XYZprinting, Ultimaker, and M3D leading the market for personal 3D printers, as noted by CONTEXT.

Several companies are now focusing on innovation in 3D printing. HP, for instance, is hitting the enterprise market with its 3D-printing technology and operates a marketplace in which third parties can innovate with their own printing materials. Imagine printing parts with embedded components, such as layers with different colours, LED indicators, and even circuitry. Executives envisage a future where 3D-printed parts can report their own stress and thermal conditions by directly connecting to the Internet of Things.

Virtual reality

Modern computerized virtual reality experienced a series of false starts. In 1991, arcade-game firm Virtuality launched its rudimentary VR-based arcade system, and four years later, Nintendo tried its hand in 1994 with the Virtual Boy, but the computing wasn’t fast enough, and the displays weren’t good enough. The next-gen technology lay largely dormant until 2012, when Oculus VR launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding program for its Rift head-mounted display.

The Oculus demos suggested the technology had finally evolved to support virtual reality, and while commercial delivery was delayed, Facebook acquired Oculus for $2 billion two years later, demonstrating its own faith in the concept. Since then, things have exploded on the VR scene. Powerful smartphones with high-resolution displays create impressive VR experiences at the low end of the market, thanks to a partnership between Oculus and Samsung, while HTC provides a similar offering with its Vive headset. Google also jumped aboard in late 2016 with its Daydream VR software platform, followed shortly after by Microsoft, which also unveiled a VR device.

VR is complemented by its cousin, augmented reality, in which computer imagery enhances rather than replaces images of the real world. Microsoft’s Hololens captured the public’s imagination in this space and is now on sale to developers. While Google’s Glass AR system was discontinued, it led a $542 million investment in secretive AR firm Magic Leap, which since expanded its total funding to $1.4 billion—not bad for a company that hasn’t even shipped a product yet. There’s a lot of money floating around the VR and AR market, and the next five years promise unprecedented growth for AR and VR as hyper-scale companies integrate them with a plethora of back-end services.

Artificial intelligence

Toward the start of this decade, the three biggest stories in AI hinted at where we’d end up five years later. IBM’s Watson defeated human contestants in the game show Jeopardy; Google revealed its driverless car technology was already on the road for months; and Apple launched Siri, its digital assistant. Since then, these technologies have all evolved.

Companies constantly push the boundaries in their AI research. Last year, Google’s DeepMind AI division won a game of Go against the world champion in a coup that wasn’t expected to happen for years. Self-driving cars are well on their way to commercial reality, with Elon Musk’s Tesla halfway there already—although ironically, Musk has voiced his concerns about AI’s potential to run away with itself and threaten human existence.

Microsoft, Google, and Amazon all jumped on the AI-assistant bandwagon, integrating them into equipment that listens to you as you roam around your home. The idea is to make AI so easy to access that it becomes part of your everyday life, accessible wherever you are. That’s part of AI’s biggest promise and, potentially, its biggest danger: As it becomes increasingly sophisticated, it promises to permeate our lives without us even aware of what’s happening.

It’s been a wild five years for these three technologies, but now that they’ve arrived, the most important part of their journey is only just beginning. What they’ll deliver in 2021 will likely be more amazing still.

3D printing and blended reality—the dawn of the next Industrial Revolution?

Until recently, artisans carried out design and production through the painstaking process of handcrafting customized products one at a time. If you wanted to buy a pair of shoes, you’d visit a cobbler, who’d create a perfect pair just for you. Then, the Industrial Revolution happened, which sped up the process and made it highly scalable—but less flexible for customization and further removed from the consumer. This process hasn’t changed for the last 100 years.

Now, 3D printing is poised to unleash a new wave of transformative changes in manufacturing, returning the craft to designers and production to local centres, while taking advantage of radical improvements in efficiency and speed. It will even allow us to design and produce entirely new products that have never been conceived of before—yet alone brought to life.

The next wave of transformative change in manufacturing

In the next 10 to 15 years, 3D printing will converge with socioeconomic forces, advanced design, production innovation, and highly automated printed processes to spark incredible transformations in design and manufacturing that were previously unimaginable. In some ways, this sea of change will herald a return to the norms of old. Products will be manufactured at local 3D production centres, nearer to the customer, and customization will be far easier to achieve.

The new production process will also require minimal logistics management and stockpiling of inventory, permitting products to be designed and produced on demand once more—but at a far faster clip than in the age of our ancestors. 3D printing is also responsive to contemporary concerns about the climate, posing a far lighter carbon footprint than mass production did in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.

A revolution in the design process

The most exciting changes 3D printing offers lie in the realm of design. Today, we can unleash our imagination and conceptualize new products to benefit the market by incorporating inspirations from the physical world, whether in 3D or 2D form, into the product design workflow—essentially blending the physical and virtual worlds with agility and ease. For instance, take Sprout—a fully integrated desktop 3D-scanning solution with 3D object capture. Now, anyone can grab something from the real world, manipulate it in the digital world, and bring it to life in physical space.

As greater potential is unlocked, it will be critical to ensure the printing process is capable of creating viable, durable versions of these innovative new products. Unlike the prior method of producing separate 2D parts that were then joined together, the new model of additive manufacturing makes it possible, for the first time, to produce a product completely from scratch, in a single printing run, entirely whole. 3D printers can now generate such products in incredibly fine detail, with robust end part strength, at quicker speed and lower cost.

A new frontier of limitless possibility

In the Industrial era, the processes of design and manufacturing were broken down into discrete parts as part of an assembly line process. Designers can now issue fine-point, detailed direction concerning the aesthetic attributes of a part (e.g., colour and texture) and its physical properties (e.g., strength, elasticity, etc.), clarifying the overall design intent for the product in a unified manner. For that to be possible, designers must have design tools that clearly communicate the printer’s capability needs. The design software and the printer must also perfectly align with common and enriched volumetric language that directly translates into volumetric pixels, or voxels, at the printer level.

Not only does 3D printing democratize and reintegrate the design process, but it also allows for continuous improvement to an original design. In the near future, embedded tracing marks and sensors will make it possible to analyze each stage of the product life cycle from initial design to real world use, providing a wealth of information that can dramatically improve the quality, relevance, and usefulness of each product. A product can be designed digitally, rendered into physical form through the 3D-printing process, and then continually enhanced using digital feedback.

Continuous improvement and product enhancement

This blended reality, blurring barriers between the physical and digital realms, opens the door to the creation of entirely new products that were just beyond our capability not long ago. Health care alone could benefit greatly through the introduction of better hearing aids and heart valve replacements designed and perfected this way. The aviation and automotive sectors, through the collection of data on how parts and products perform and are used in real-world conditions, are also ripe for innovation.

We truly are on the brink of a new Industrial Revolution—one in which design and production take place more quickly and much closer to home. Customization is responsive to local requirements; designers can imagine and print entirely new products never before seen; and the innovations themselves can be constantly improved through the intelligent use of tracking and sensor data. It’s an age of limitless potential and transformative change, and it’s already underway.