THE STORY SO FAR...
Additive Manufacturing (AM) has come a long way in a short amount of time and the industry shows no sign of stopping.
Customers and clients have increasingly changeable and specialised needs. In today’s business, flexibility means everything.
In 2021, enabling a customer to add their initials to a pair of trainers is possible, but fully customised 3D printed shoes are in the hands of just a few of the best professional athletes.
Tomorrow, every customer will be able to design their fully customised footwear from the ground up. Additive manufacturing will then automatically shape each shoe so that they fit the wearers feet exactly.
...and that's just one example of the way things are set to change.
3D printing got its first break in the 80s as a tool for rapid prototyping. Being able to produce accurate models of prototypes and make physical comparisons before bringing them into meetings was a huge benefit.
The idea of using 3D printing as a method of manufacturing itself was complete anathema however it’s understandable when 3D printers at this point in time were large, chunky machines with price tags to match and the computer software required to operate them was also in its infancy.
3D printing is still a great way for rapidly iterating a design. Nike estimates prototyping is 16 times quicker than other, previous manufacturing methods. This is no longer the whole story though.
Renewed interest in the technology, a drop in equipment prices and more accessible software have spurred new ways of using it. Small-batch manufacturing in micro factories is the order of the day. Businesses can now produce limited runs of high-risk, high-reward products to test their popularity before committing to mass-production.
THE FUTURE WE ARE MAKING
Amazon dominates ecommerce in the now by catering to the ‘long tail of demand’; stocking relatively small quantities of niche products which specific audiences are willing to pay more for. Legacy manufacturing methods such as injection moulding still require large, costly production runs to be profitable though, meaning valuable but specialised products never make it to market.
Large-scale AM will unlock the next step in the evolution of manufacturing and ecommerce. 3D printers will enable a new market leader to cater to the tastes of individual people with unique, rapidly changing needs. With no tooling costs, 3D printers can ‘turn on a dime’ and immediately switch from producing one bespoke product to another as demand changes.