August 4, 2014, 11:33 AM

Retail's next dimension: 3-D printing

Online merchants have begun taking a new interest in the manufacturing technique, finding it allows them to slash prototyping costs and quickly customize items to shoppers’ tastes.

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They may not have flying cars, but some households today contain box-like machines able to spit out custom objects on-demand in a manner reminiscent of “The Jetsons” instant meal-producing kitchen appliance. Although nowhere near ubiquitous, those machines—3-D printers, which follow digital blueprints to build items layer by layer—are becoming more commonplace, as they are now sold online at Amazon.com and in stores like Home Depot and Staples at prices similar to laptop computers. And in recent years, they’ve begun opening up new opportunities for e-retailers.

Theoretically, if every consumer had a 3-D printer at home, the devices could transform how e-retail works: George could buy a suit design online and his home machine would then immediately print him the outfit. That scenario could upend traditional manufacturing processes, putting stores and UPS out of business. However, in reality, retailers and industry experts agree that such a scenario is almost certainly not going to happen—at least not anytime in the near term.

Wouter Nicolai, owner of Netherlands-based 3-D-printed cookie-cutter store Printmeneer, says most 3-D printers available now for home use are highly limited by what materials, sizes and finish qualities they can produce for consumers to take up 3-D printing en masse. But interest is growing. Juniper Research Ltd. projects manufacturers will ship more than 1 million 3-D printers meant for consumer use by 2018, up from 44,000 today; and that the sale of 3-D printers and related materials will grow from $75 million this year to $1.2 billion in the same time frame.

While printing a stylish suit on-demand may be out of the question for now, 3-D printing is positioned to transform the manufacturing process by cutting overhead costs, including on prototyping, labor and inventory storage, and that creates opportunities for e-retailers, says Terry Wohlers, principal consultant and president of Wohlers Associates Inc., a 3-D printing consultancy.

3-D printing has also begun allowing e-retailers to offer personalized items that were not physically or economically feasible to deliver in the past—think a dish with an image of your pet’s face engraved in the bottom. Customizable 3-D printed goods available online today include HeadBobble.com’s personalized bobbleheads—for $79 to $89, the company promises to turn headshot images consumers upload into a figurine within six weeks—and New Zealand-based ODD Guitars’ $3,500 Hive bass guitar, which has a wooden inner core but a beehive-like body of latticed nylon, complete with tiny bees in the hexagonal holes.

“[3-D printing] is developing new businesses,” Wohlers says. “You can do really complex things that you couldn’t manufacture using traditional methods.”

Available only as large, expensive machines when they were introduced more than 30 years ago, 3-D printers now range in size from a few cubic feet that fit on a tabletop to machines that can fill several rooms. They print using all sorts of materials, including plastic, wood, glass and steel. Manufacturers like General Electric, Boeing Co. and medical technologies firm Stryker Corp. use 3-D printing to make tens of thousands of parts, including components of jet engines and hip implants, according to Wohlers.

Overall, the 3-D printing industry last year accounted for $3.07 billion in manufacturing expenses, far less than 1% of the $10.5 trillion spent worldwide on all manufacturing, he continues. But 3-D printing is growing, he says, predicting in the near future it will account for 2% of the pie, and potentially much more over time. Its real value, however, stems from the cost savings of 3-D printing’s faster, on-demand processes that require vastly less labor than traditional manufacturing methods, he says.

What this means for online retailers is that it becomes possible for them now to produce customized products in small quantities, down to quantities of one. And while few physical shops would get enough foot traffic to justify the cost of a 3-D printer to make such products, a retailer selling to the world’s consumers via the web may be able to attract enough orders to justify the cost of a 3-D printer and the materials it uses.

In the world of jewelry and fine art design, for example, creating a custom mold for a prototype can cost $20,000 or more, says Colleen Jordan, founder of Wearable Planter LLC—and that doesn’t include any guarantees that consumers will like it. But 3-D printing allows her to prototype objects for about $100, and the $20,000 that a single ceramic mold would cost is now roughly her entire annual manufacturing budget, she says. She began selling 3-D printed “wearable planters”—small flower pots fitted to pins, necklaces and rings—on Etsy in 2011, and also sells them on her own e-commerce site, WearablePlanter.com.

The opportunity to use 3-D printing to inexpensively create one-of-a-kind items using customer input offers a tantalizing way for online retailers to stand out from the crowd—including physical stores heavily stocked with mass-produced merchandise.

“We are excited by what we can see in the near-term and what our customers can do to play a role in design,” says Petra Schindler-Carter, director for marketplace sales at Amazon.com Inc., which launched its first 3-D printed goods marketplace in July. “There’s now an ecosystem of folks who are independent designers who see this as a real opportunity to make a unique product that brings something to the customer that hasn’t been created before.”

Nicolai of Printmeneer says he receives a couple of custom design requests per week via his Etsy store. “Some of [the customers] are drawn to the cutters because they are 3-D printed, but for most of them it is because the designs are not available elsewhere or can be customized on request,” he says.

Still, retail behemoths Amazon and eBay Inc. are only just getting into the 3-D printing game. Within the last 14 months, both companies have announced new 3-D printed goods categories in their online marketplaces: Amazon launched the category this past July and eBay last year ran a pilot program selling custom 3-D printed objects from the eBay Exact iPhone app.

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