With the fall of prices and technological advancements, 3D printers are selling like hot cakes in the market and have undisputedly made a bold entry into the mainstream market. The progress of these printers has outrun the expectations of the analysts with market shares that grew with leaps and bounds to $3.07 billion in 2013 from $2.2 billion in 2012. According to the Wohler’s report the annual growth rate for the year 2011 to 2013 is expected to be 32.3 %. Apart from Wohler’s another research company named McKinsey Global Institute’s research reveals that the market for 3D printer is expected to expand by 2025 to a market that has $550 billion circulating. Hobbyists are trying out their options of creating everything possible using 3D printers – from action figurines to home appliances, but the major impact would be felt by the manufacturing industry.

Since these printers are expected to generate a lot of money in the near future mid- market manufacturers, are already evaluating the viability of 3D printers to supplement their already existing supply chain system. The extraordinary benefits of 3D printers are attracting these manufacturers to incorporate these printers in their supply chain. This is being done for primarily three reasons:

  • To increase flexibility
  • Improve responsiveness
  • Cost savings

These three can be achieved by incorporating these printers strategically in the supply chain system.

3D Printing and E- Commerce:

The advancement in technology paired with the fall in prices is opening new opportunities especially for the e-commerce industry. There are a lot of online stores that are dedicatedly selling 3D printed objects and there are others that are selling 3D printers and related items online. Both these stores are in more than one way are increasing the popularity of 3D printers among commoners. Some big shots of the e-commerce industry are looking beyond the possibility of selling physical 3D printed objects and are planning to venture into the service arena. If this comes true then there would be a drastic change in the e-commerce industry with online merchants selling blueprints of the items that the consumer wants and ultimately the consumer becomes the manufacturer!

Ebay, one of the biggies of the online shopping business, has rolled out an iPhone application named eBay Exact. This application allows its customers to buy customized merchandise from three 3D printing companies. Apart from eBay, Amazon established a 3D product store earlier this year in partnership with 3DLT. With this partnership Amazon now offers approximately 73 products on its official website. These products mainly consist of jewelry and accessories for electronic goods. Amazon also sells 3D printers and their supplies such as filaments and spare parts. 3DLT also manufactures 3D printing template, that can be downloaded by consumers. For this venture, it collaborates with individual designers who create 3D printable files that the company sells online to consumers who can in turn download it on their computers and generate a print on their personal 3D printers. Since the technology has not become a so called “household technology” there is a significant amount of possibility that many people do not have 3D printers at their disposal for such people the company has a vast network of over 500 3D retail printers where customers can bring in their files and get the object printed.

Shapeways, another big shot in the 3D printing industry is one of the world’s largest market place for 3D printed products and printing services in a multitude of material. The company sources some of the product designs that are sold on their website form designers and hobbyists. The other companies that work on similar grounds are Sculpteo, which allows individuals to buy and sell designs and also provides a printing service.

Rocky Future?

Like coins, which have two sides and both the sides are quite different from one another but to complete the coin both the sides are necessary. There are a lot of opportunities that 3D printing has the potential to offer but it could be a possible threat to the retailers. With the entry of 3D printers, consumers can become the manufacturers and they will be capable of DIYing many things which in turn would later become the supply side of e-commerce industry. Companies such as Amazon and Walmart can easily reduce their inventory by adopting this technology in order to manufacture low- value or rare parts on demand.

Implications of E-Commerce Merchants:

3D printing offers these merchants with an alternative from buying goods from manufacturers. The designs can readily produce templates for products. The creation and maintaining of a flexible, responsive and cost- effective system of supply chains needs a constant evaluation for new strategies, processes and technologies. With the constant backing from intelligent operations and supply chain collaborations, 3D printing will definetly prove to be a wonderful supplement for the traditional manufacturing system but replacing the traditional system is not possible at this stage due to limitations of speed, cost and steep learning curve associated with 3D printing.

Image Credit: Ritesh Nayak (flickr handle: itsmeritesh)