The advent of technology has made 3D printing, which was invented in the mid-eighties, more commonplace in recent years. As the prices for 3D printers become more affordable, this form of technology is making its way into the consumer arena – no longer confined to the business-to-business (B2B) sphere. Will 3D printer cause a downfall in the e-commerce industry if people were able to simply print items at home instead of buying them? Or will 3D printing revolutionise the e-commerce sector?
What is a 3D printer?
Beneath all the hype about 3D printing, let’s get down to discovering what a 3D printer is and how it actually works. A 3D printer, for the uninitiated, is simply a device capable of producing a three-dimensional object from a digital design. It is a form of additive manufacturing – a layered process similar to how an ink-jet printer sequentially layers its colours on a flat piece of paper.
Being a new generation of machines, 3D printers are highly remarkable for they can produce different kinds of objects, in different materials, all from the same device. As such, with 3D printers, traditional factory production lines may face stiff competition or even a plausible disruption in time to come.
A 3D printer can manufacture pretty much anything from ceramic cups to plastic toys, shoes, bags, car frames, guns, chocolate, furniture, Invisalign braces, prosthetics and maybe even human body parts soon. In fact, just in March this year, a 400-square-foot home was 3D-printed and fully built in 24 hours.
Examples of 3D printed items
Why is it called printing?
When you look really closely at traditional printing (i.e. a page of printed text from your home printer), you will see that the letters do not just stain the paper as they are actually sitting slightly on top of the surface of the paper.
So in that regard, if you were to print over that same page a few hundred or thousand times, eventually the ink would accumulate enough layers on top of each other to create a solid 3D model of each letter. This idea of building a physical object out of many tiny layers is the basis of 3D printing.
How does 3D printing work?
The process of 3D printing starts with a digital model of an object and creates a 3D solid object reproduction. Together with a computer-aided design or modelling software, a 3D printer uses rapid prototyping to create a geometric model. A solid object is created using layers of various materials such as filaments of plastic, metal, liquid, powder, resin, geopolymer or even wood pulp to form a series of cross sections that become fused over many layers in the manufacturing process.
Because each layer can be very complex, 3D printers can produce moving parts like hinges and wheels as part of the same object. Hence, justifying the feasibility of the 3D printed car and house in the examples above.
3D Printing and E-commerce
As with all new technologies, the prices of 3D printers are steep at the initial stages but will gradually become more affordable for the masses. With the price of 3D printers falling, new opportunities will emerge, especially for e-commerce retailers (e-tailers). By leveraging on 3D printing technology, e-tailers will be able to offer cost and time savings, a greater variety of products and customisation to their consumers.
Several dedicated online stores have sprouted up while others such as Amazon and Tmall have already started selling 3D printers, materials and finished products. For instance, eBay has rolled out an iPhone application, named eBay Exact, which allows users to buy customisable-printed merchandise from 3D printing companies while Walmart has begun a 3D printing service pilot programme. And Etsy has 13 pages of 3D-printed objects for sale.
Unless you are a product designer or engineer, you will most likely not buy a 3D printer for home usage just yet. At least not until the time when this form of emerging technology becomes an indispensable everyday item where all households would each have one. This is where opportunities arise for e-commerce players.
Cost and Time Savings, Greater Variety & Customisation
With 3D printing incorporated into their business models, e-commerce companies will be able to save costs on warehousing needs by reducing inventory of traditionally manufactured products sourced from overseas as they will now be able to produce those same products by themselves. This would, in turn, lead to cost and time savings for consumers. Products will now reach customers at a quicker speed if the processes of product sourcing done overseas and subsequent shipping were to be bypassed or simply skipped altogether.
Even if companies were to implement only a small proportion of 3D printing into their business models, they will be able to significantly increase the variety of offerings to consumers – being able to print and produce low-value or hard-to-find parts on demand. With 3D printing adopted, they will also be able to offer customisation of products to the needs of individual customers, catering to an even wider customer base.
An even more radical move will be when e-commerce players step up to become not only a service provider but also a directory of 3D printing design files offered for sale to customers. This will allow those who own a 3D printer at home to purchase a product template from them then going home to print out the object by themselves, while for the rest of the customers who do not own a 3D printer, they will be able to still buy 3D printed products customised according to their specifications, printed at the facilities of e-commerce companies.
This also represents the fact that e-tailers now have an alternative – they no longer need to rely solely on manufacturers for the procurement of goods and play the middleman role of selling the products to customers. By adopting 3D printing technology, e-tailers can effectively cut out their roles as the middleman and become producers themselves. It is one way for them to diversify their businesses.
Limitations to 3D printing
As formidable and incredible as 3D printing sounds, the reality is that 3D printing has not gained enough traction yet. 3D printing offers no advantage in terms of having economies of scale yet and thus, cannot beat the cost effectiveness that traditional mass manufacturing production methods offer.
Moreover, the quality of 3D printed products is unable to rival the smooth finishes of those made from industrial factory production lines yet. 3D printing technology can neither provide the variety of materials nor the wide range of sizes made available through industrial processes. However, like so many emerging technologies, 3D printer capabilities will improve over time.
Therefore, the answer to the article title above, is a short no. 3D printing will not cause e-commerce to be displaced – at least not anytime soon – but will more likely revolutionise the whole industry, and as a result, benefit consumers.
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