Insights

How 3D Printing could Disrupt the Retail Industry

by Matt Gherardi

3D printing technology is a truly disruptive technology that’s slowly beginning to come to maturity. We’re seeing it hit the headlines more and more in recent months with some pretty outlandish claims, so we thought we’d take a look ourselves to find out what effect it could have on both the retail industry and also our supply chains.

Printing tonight’s outfit at home?

3D printing is already being used by fashion designers and tech leaders at Adidas. Even houses are even being printed in 3D in Russia[1].

However we’re going to start by looking at the fashion industry. Often the early adopters of new retail technology, pioneering designers can offer us a look into how technologies might progress in the future.

Danit Peleg, an Israeli fashion designer, is one such innovator leading the charge on designing, manufacturing and selling 3D printed clothing. Her designs are ultra-modern and durable and have been featured on Tyra Banks’ talk show. More unusually, Peleg has designed and manufactured her entire range herself using her own 3D printer, her own software and materials sourced from Recreus.

Peleg sees a future where customers everywhere have access to their own personal 3D printers and 3D printing materials. In this world, Peleg wants to sell only her designs in soft copy, leaving the actual manufacturing up to the customers with their own printers. If this caught on, this eventuality would constitute a massive disruption to retail as we know it. Retailers in this future would find themselves selling 3D printing materials and 3D printers and then selling individual garment designs, like a hybrid iTunes of clothing retail. In this world, manufacturers and logistics companies would now be needed to ensure the 3D printers and printing materials arrive at the door of the customer.

However, the world that Peleg envisions is still a long way off. Several barriers exist currently that are preventing 3D printing from progressing in this way. The main barriers facing Peleg initially are maturity of design software and also the availability of materials. Her ultra-modern designs are certainly, at least, partly driven by the constraints of the materials available for use in 3D printing. She also has to use a cumbersome combination of software by Gerber Technology and Blender in order to create designs viable for 3D printing.

Despite these challenges, Peleg is forging ahead and sending completed 3D printed items to her customers whilst partnering with Gerber to create a consolidated 3D printing clothing software offering.

One thing is for sure when it comes to fashion – where one goes, others are sure to follow and keep on innovating. We’re excited to see what happens next.

The Next Generation of Footwear?

At a corporate level, Adidas is also applying 3D printing innovations to shoe manufacturing. For some time, Adidas has been creating limited runs of 3D printed shoes that they claim are ultra-durable and incredibly comfortable, due to the way 3D printing can precisely manufacture ‘honeycomb’ 3D shapes. However, critics of this approach have dismissed these limited offerings as a publicity stunt designed to create a buzz around the brand and frame the company as an innovator.

Despite the criticism, Adidas is now set to expand their limited runs to a full run of 100,000 ‘Futurecraft 4D’ shoes starting at the end of 2018[2]. Part of the benefits of expanding 3D printed shoes is the potential for much greater customer customisation, something much prized by sports shoe makers. Only time will tell how well these new shoes will sell.

The expansion of Adidas’ 3D printing capabilities paints another picture of potential disruption to the retail industry. In this world, retailers will be able to harness the cheaper and western-centerd manufacturing offered by 3D printing to reduce their dependence on suppliers and manufacturers downstream. Retailers could even roll out 3D printers to stores or mobile delivery vehicles, so customers can order bespoke goods to be printed for them, as and when they’re ready to buy.

This eventuality has a great deal of potential for reducing the waste currently generated by the clothing industry and also provides new and deep mode of interaction to further build customer relationships with brands.

Whatever happens, we will be sure to keep an eye on the development of 3D printing technology. It does seem that it has the potential to disrupt all aspects of the supply chain.

 

Notes

[1] 3D house printed in Russia: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/2017/03/03/incredibly-cheap-house-3d-printed-just-24-hours/

[2] http://www.adidas.com/us/futurecraft

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