In its current technological incarnation, 3D printing excels for producing structurally-simple items made chiefly from plastic. The ecommerce industry, meanwhile, continues to thrive through offering small and light products with low material costs and healthy profit margins — think phone cases, clothes, or decorations.
Because of this, there’s significant room for the two areas to overlap, and thus a great deal of potential to be mined. If you’re in the 3d printing game and looking to embrace ecommerce applications (or vice versa), here’s what you need to know about the strengths of 3D printing and what it can bring to the ecommerce world.
There are numerous material options
While the majority of 3D printing is done using thermoplastics (printed while pliable at heat and allowed to cool solid), there are various types of thermoplastic with different properties, so 3D printing isn’t as limiting a process as people might think. Furthermore, there are even 3D printers that can work with other materials such as metal — metal powders are held together for printing by a polymer mix that is later melted away to leave the finished structure.
With a range of materials offering different levels of strength, cost, flexibility and recyclability (for instance, PLA filament — derived from corn starch — is biodegradable, making it an excellent option for small items likely to produce waste), 3D printing is actually extremely versatile.
As such, ecommerce retailers that have written off 3D printing as a one-note gimmick would be well advised to investigate it more thoroughly (particularly given that the commercially-viable options are only going to expand in the future).
Additive fabrication is cost-effective
Traditional manufacturing methods produce a lot of processing waste, chiefly through the subtractive nature of most of the work. Like chiselling statues, factories take lumps of material and steadily refine them into the required shapes, a process that inevitably leaves unused chunks and slivers that must then be discarded or recycled.
3D printing, however, is a careful additive process. Raw materials (typically malleable thermoplastics, as noted) are distributed layer by layer to form structures, and any supporting structures are built of the same material which can then easily be melted down once again for reuse. This process is slower in many cases, but the value of requiring only one substance for the bulk of construction more than makes up for it (for small items, at least).
In the ecommerce world, this is a tremendous advantage. Whether pursuing in-house manufacturing or outsourcing to dedicated operations, retailers can massively cut down on material costs. It also easily allows for what is known as topological optimisation, which involves carefully arranging a structure for optimal performance (it’s much harder to achieve for designs that are built peacemeal and subsequently assembled).
3D printing makes prototyping much easier
In 2017, a Sculpteo study found that 28% of industry professionals embracing 3D printing were using it to hasten their product development, with 57% of all 3D printing work being carried out to help get new products to market more rapidly. A prototype item doesn’t need the fine polish of more complex manufacturing, after all — it mainly needs proof of concept and functionality, and 3D printing is perfectly suitable.
For ecommerce businesses looking to expand their custom product ranges, 3D printing is a huge boon. Test products can be created quickly, cheaply and easily, and a small business has the option of investing in a 3D printer to do limited in-house production work without needing to expand its premises, something that was never possible with manual manufacturing.
Uses will expand with design accessibility
In addition to spending money on printing hardware and materials, the average business pursuing in-house 3D printing must invest in software and training — it’s no use having an advanced 3D printer if you can’t usefully operate it. Software options vary in cost and utility, but even the simplest options are going to seem intimidating to beginners, especially since the skills required to design strong 3D models fit for printing aren’t particularly common at this point.
That said, things are going to get easier over time, and it’s hardly the case that online retailers have conventionally had a great deal of granular input over their product designs. More often that not, ideas are taken to design companies, with the resulting designs sent to manufacturing. The same option is there for 3D printing, except that the nature of the process makes it possible (though tricky, as established) for someone to create a decent design with no formal training.
Given the rate of technological development, and the increasing extent to which IT skills are prioritised in schools, we can reasonably expect the practice of budding ecommerce sellers designing their own products through intuitive interfaces to be commonplace in the near future (consider the extent to which the no-expertise-needed store builder no-expertise-needed store builder has already made programming knowledge an unnecessary component of the ecommerce world).
You can pivot so much faster with 3D printing
Dominated by a select few retailers with the arrangements and distribution networks to provide unbeatable deals on most products (most notably Amazon, of course), the ecommerce industry is challenging for smaller businesses that must fight to find areas in which they can compete. When one trend stalls and another emerges, or a new rival appears, any given company can find itself struggling to stay afloat. What this means is that the most successful ecommerce companies are often those with the ability and willingness to adapt to changing circumstances .
Because 3D printing uses generic materials and an unchanging production process, it can seamlessly support rapid-fire pivoting. A business that sells mugs but starts losing sales can start selling bracelets instead with no significant disruption in operation — it need only create a design that works within the supported size range and material options.
And any products on offer can readily be customised upon request, since items can be altered, printed and shipped very rapidly. Need some promotional items for a marketing event? You can tweak your current designs to add the event logo.
How to get started with 3D printing
There are numerous websites out there that essentially serve as 3D printing marketplaces — upload a design, select your parameters, and locate a 3D printing company that can fulfil your order. If you’re looking to work 3D printing into your general ecommerce operation, you’ll want to do one of two things:
l Invest in your own 3D printer and learn how to use it.
l Establish a working arrangement with a 3D printing company.
Which option you should choose will depend on how many products you anticipate selling, what rates you can find from third-party printers, what kind of money you have for hardware investment, and numerous other factors. To begin with, you should use a third-party printer while you figure out if 3D printing really is the best choice for your business. There’s no sense in investing heavily in something you’re not yet sure about.
3D printing is already being used at scale in the ecommerce world, but in the long term it stands to have a disruptive effect on in-house manufacturing, allowing for greater flexibility, lower costs, and (ultimately) stronger products. If you’re not already considering 3D printing for your ecommerce business, start doing some research — it might well prove very fruitful.
Patrick Foster is a writer and ecommerce expert from Ecommerce Tips, a dedicated ecommerce blog all about the present and future of the online retail industry. For updates, follow us on Twitter @myecommercetips.