We spend so much of our time seeking the right parts, developing new materials, finding new applications that I fear we may have lost the plot. Yes, our future is bright, and finding, qualifying, and industrializing new parts and applications will be important for our future. Developing new capabilities, resolutions and materials will also open up new markets. But, can’t we do more with our existing capabilities? Wouldn’t it be very effective if we also tried to find new winning products that are possible now but not yet popular? Let’s start with a hard one: polymer 3D printed jewellery. So instead of being the umpteenth person to enter into Pat Warner’s good graces, or beginning a labyrinthine trek into the bowels of Volkswagen or Daimler, or doing something super fun like trying to qualify parts for Airbus, let’s do something much simpler.
And paradoxically, let’s do something more unique. We see many people try to get into aviation, commercial space, orthopedics, and the like. But, what about trying to make polymer 3D printed jewellery happen? We can, with powder bed fusion, make lots of great shapes and designs. There are a lot of designers out there that master CAD now, not millions but tens of thousands for certain. People are interested in “side gigs,” working from home, passive income, dropshipping businesses, and being creative. It seems easy: pay a designer to make a collection, do photos, promote it, have a cool website, and sit back and make money. Every time an order comes in, Materialise, Shapeways, Stratasys Direct, or Forecast makes it for you. When I was analyzing this industry in 2008, I thought this was one of the biggest opportunities out there. The lowering of barriers to entry so that regular people with no capital could “rent” the means of production to compete globally on markets such as glasses, jewellery, desktop games, board games, moulds, and trinkets was endless. Sure the medical 3D printing market may be $8 billion in revenue near term, but jewellery company Pandora is a $2 billion revenue company. Furthermore, it has some of the fattest margins in luxury goods. Surely eventually, someone would build something similar around 3D printing?
I’ve tried and failed to make this happen for over a decade now. I’ve helped people and tried myself and written about it and done all I can to absolutely no result. We have a technology that can, right now, do so much and is relatively cost-effective for small polymer parts. The finish is there now with Dye Mansion and others, and we can even engineer a nice haptic effect. We can make designs quicker and, in effect, be lighting fast fashion with no inventory. We make all the time what is popular, release new jewel every day and only print what is ordered. The economics of this are very good as well, and you’d need very little investment to get started. There were some early efforts in mass customization for jewelry that floundered. Twikit has seen some success in customizing cufflinks and colliers and the rest as well.
I also know that some small brands are doing very well in niches. After all, that was what we all expected: microbrands for niches everywhere. I really thought that we would have an accessories brand for eco-conscious, design-minded gay women in Tokyo, for example. These things did not come to pass, however. Meanwhile, Swarovski has built a $2.7 billion business selling glass as jewellery. Like they took the industrial lead glass and have made it a luxury product. It’s made from quartz sand, a superabundant and inexpensive resource. Surely, surely we could do the same? But why have we not been successful so far?
- A few companies became very trapped in their niches. They had a good product but could not find enough people in their niche and bind them to them. It seemed as if there was just not enough attraction in some cases. In others, it appeared that their niches lacked the infrastructure to market to them.
- Other niche firms have stayed profitable within niches and have continued to prosper without “going mainstream.” If you want a highly profitable business with two full-time people, a nice house for you both, and maybe a small boat, that’s fine. These businesses were bootstrapped and gave people successful livings, but they didn’t need investors or a lot of media attention. Indeed several of these people abhor scrutiny. So maybe we should redefine our success criteria?
- For those wanting to go bigger, they lacked the marketing firepower to really make their brands relevant. Investors did invest in some of these firms, but no one could convince them to part with too much of their money.
- There was little in the way of distribution for these firms, and they could not supplement their revenue through many physical stores or specialized retail.
- The maker niche that most of these firms were in was an aesthetic that appealed to few people.
- No one really managed to crack the mass customization for jewellery value proposition or flow on the site.
- Products often felt very light, which was equated to them being considered cheap.
- People are still not sold on polymer jewellery generally.
- There was a sense of platform captivity whereby a seller was bound to a platform and could not grow beyond their share of attention on that platform, nor could they grow faster than that platform.
- There was also a lot of copying of designs which made it difficult for one person to really stand out.
- There were some fundamental agency dilemmas whereby platforms wanted cheap prices and competition more than individual success.
- Platforms didn’t manage to penetrate the mainstream consciousness.
- We never made things that were truly relevant for the average consumer.
- We didn’t celebrate success enough, especially financial success.
- Many people made $2000 to $10,000 a month extra on a side gig that cost them little time. But, few of those wanted to take the leap and make it a full-time thing.
- Fewer still were even actively trying to secure investment to make it bigger still.
I think that there is a real and considerable opportunity to make 3D printed polymer jewellery happen. I think it can still be a very profitable business for some marketeer who figures out in this space what it is that we can offer than others want.
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