3D Printing – Creative Disruption or Dystopia?

27 Mar 2014|Added Value

3D Printing was declared one of the top five trends at CES back in January and since then, the internet has been abuzz with its myriad of potential uses. Chatter has raged about how it will transform a huge variety of manufacturing processes, affecting everything from our underwear, to the type of food we eat, the organs we donate and even our plans for inhabiting Mars one day. Some tout that 3D will herald the start of the third industrial revolution, predicting that, by 2025, 10% of all consumer products will be made using 3D processes.

Although 3D printing has not yet touched the lives of mainstream consumers, the hype and hyperbole surrounding it should not be dismissed. We live in a world where ground-breaking technologies take less than a couple of years to become ubiquitous. If the cataclysmic shifts caused by the digitalization of the music and video industries teach us anything, 3D is likely to be highly disruptive. The technology is bound to generate a host of currently unknown opportunities and threats for existing businesses and entrepreneurial startups across all sectors.

But what about the social and environmental impacts of 3D printing? Will this technology lead to a planet slowly asphyxiated by a plethora of personalized happy meal toys … or will it engender an efficient and empowered new world in which waste is reduced and consumers are able to access the products they need outside of the current constraints of space and time? Now is the moment for marketers to ask these questions: to understand the implications of the technology for their consumers, their brands and their innovation strategies, so as to avoid being left behind or ending up on the wrong side of the debate.

For the 3D optimists, the technology has the potential to provide consumers access to an affordable higher quality of life, particularly in developing countries. Already, a war amputee in South Sudan has had a prosthetic arm created for him for $100 – a feat impossible without 3D printing. And in Haiti, a project is underway to enable life-saving medical instruments to be printed quickly to meet the needs of under-resourced doctors struggling to serve a growing population. Even in developed markets this technology could revolutionize treatment and radically alter the cost curve.

Its adoption could transform our expectations of a product’s life cycle and the role of the brand within this. If 3D printing enables us to replace only the worn parts of products when needed, cost savvy consumers will expect to be able to keep their products for longer, replacing parts at a fraction of the cost of the whole. Planned obsolescence in product design could itself become obsolete, forcing brands to rethink their innovation and growth strategies. Opportunities would be created for brands to develop product ‘upgrades’ for existing models in a similar fashion to the way we upgrade software now. This in turn would motivate businesses to transform their bricks and mortar retail outlets into bespoke, branded customer service departments to help fix, or update products in real time. A sustainable service focused ‘software’ inspired business model could therefore become the norm as 3D printing spreads.

In a utopian future, the technology could empower businesses to deliver energy and resource-efficient, customized, on-demand products to consumers, regardless of their geographical boundaries. When developed at scale, it has the potential to save businesses time and money, eliminating the need to maintain expensive tooling in factories and reducing waste material and transport costs as a result. The benefits could go further too as this ‘new normal’ may improve businesses’ environmental impact across the production line, substantially improving their carbon footprint.

Yet 3D pessimists are quick to ring alarm bells, citing the potentially dangerous impact that this kind of printing could have on our health, our environment and our economy.

Much uncertainty remains until many murky questions are answered. If everyone were to print their own gimmicky products like Nokia’s printed mobile phone case or Coke’s printed mini-me, think of the tremendous waste and resource scarcity that could ensue. What if the bad guys all start printing their own guns? And what does it mean when Lego and Mattel, who both use 3D printers for their prototypes, do not plan on making consumer printed designs any time soon, citing concerns that the materials used in 3D printing will not be child-safe?

Of greatest alarm, perhaps, are the dystopian views of the havoc that could be wreaked on the economy if 3-D printing technology took over. If everyone can print their own possessions, who will own the copyright? Won’t whole sectors go out of business, leading to massive unemployment? The potential legal issues for 3-D printing alone are vast, ranging from intellectual property to consumer protection and even weapon possession.

Managing the place of the brand within this technological and cultural shift in ownership will also have its challenges. Yet as 3D printing enables personalization for the masses, allowing consumers to become craftsmen and tailor-make their own products, brands could actually benefit. Recent academic research suggests that the act of creating increases the value that a consumer ascribes to a product, allowing brands to charge more for the service. Brands that capitalize on this phenomenon may see a boost in their perceived equity, as they facilitate access to personalized, “just-in-time” production.

The jury is still out on 3D printing. We are currently sitting in an apocryphal calm before the storm: while we know it will disrupt, we don’t know yet exactly where or how the impacts will be felt most. Ultimately, the fate of 3D printing will depend on the level of commitment and investment businesses put behind it. Today, brands with foresight are exploring how 3D ‘s progress might change the way they do business. They have the opportunity to steer behavior change in their consumers and to lead the conversation on how the technology is adopted. But they will need to give the matter careful thought to ensure their strategies result in positive change for their bottom lines, for their consumers and for society.

Written by Claire Carmichael – WPP Fellow at Added Value

Image credits:  Kickstarter project by Chicago-based artist Joshua Harke to fund the creation of his 3D-printed ornate skulls

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