We know that we are using far too many materials in a quest for consumption, could recycle them and could use these recycled goods in high valued materials but why use 3D printing? 3D printing is a series of technologies that are very good at making a unique shape in a day or two for far too high a cost per item. That means that if we consider volume businesses than 3D printing is currently too costly. Apart from machine time and cost as well as labor material cost is the biggest cost driver. Ideally, with recycled materials we would make low-cost materials that would enable more manufacturing. 3D printing’s sweet spot in terms of part size is still somewhere between a marble and a volleyball currently, however. So not for everything and not all the time. Intrinsicly, once you’ve invested in your mold and if you’re willing to wait for the boat to come back from China 3D printing is still a far lower throughput and higher cost technology than molding. But, if we want something now(ish) and we want it at a certain place 3D printing can give us an answer. Broadly, mass customization, fashion risk, and local production could all spark use cases in high-value consumer goods.
Local production is a hot topic due to renewed interest in nationalism and assuring one’s supply chain. If this is pertinent, rather than making something overseas local manufacturing could make significant dents in time to market. Being closer to your customer can have you respond on trend to the market quicker. A new style of fidget spinner could be in your customer’s hands before the other guy has ordered them from AliBaba. There is cause for pessimism here, however. In the fidget spinner trend, we as an industry made no inroads, and in fashion and luxury goods they often consider our parts ugly. On the extreme low end, our technology finds it difficult to leverage itself whereas on the high end we find it hard to impress. We could think of ourselves as a completely modular technology where one printer could make a 1000 hearing aid shells or dental molds per day. Theoretically, one could scale up and down manufacturing very easily and be much more versatile than other technologies. Yes, we save significant time and start-up costs over other manufacturing processes that require tooling. But, we have still to find a sweet spot where our intrinsic qualities can be appreciated.
We can not compete with the least expensive things nor can we do battle head-on with the hand made. We can not compete against those things that are solely cost-driven and need to be made in their millions either. For the right 3D printed product to make sense, it needs to be a relatively small, high-value product that could benefit from our technology, immediacy and being made in relatively low volume on time. The sum total of these things point to a very exciting benefit that our technology has, and that is to be able to mitigate fashion risk. We do not have to plan 14 months ahead to see how many green slippers Danish people will buy. This means that huge errors in these numbers, either on the more optimistic and pessimistic side can be avoided. Yes, per item 3D printing will be more expensive but we won’t have to put 100,000 slippers in TJ MAXX or miss out on selling 200,000 orange slippers that you didn’t have in stock.
By combining up to date supply chain information from in stores with short completely controlled supply chains Inditex can already reorder parts in a number of days, redesign and deploy items in a matter of a days as well and go from an idea to a widely available in-store product in a week or two as well. We can already see that Zara’s parent company is widely successful because it mitigates fashion risk for itself. Its competitors are often still trying to estimate two years or 14 months in advance even today. To me the Zara model is sure to be the right one, but can 3D printing pull this off?
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