Forget costly prototypes, traditional textile manufacturing, product recalls, and the like. 3D printing is about to turn the entire retail industry on its head.
A precise form of additive manufacturing, 3D printing can create a product from almost any material at mass scale, generating large quantities while individually tailoring each product to consumers.
In this final “Future of Retail” blog, we will discuss how 3D printing will change the way our clothes (and most consumer goods) are made.
Let’s dive in.
The Rise of 3D Printed Clothing
In 2010, Kevin Rustagi was frustrated. So were his friends Aman Advano, Kit Hickey, and Gihan Amarasiriwardena.
These four recent MIT grads had been thrust into the working world, where they quickly discovered they hated their outfits. Business clothes sucked. And it didn’t make sense—athletes got to perform in all sorts of high-tech gear, but accountants had to make do with Dockers?
So they decided to bring a little whiz-bang to the boardroom. Together, they formed the Ministry of Supply, a clothing company intent on borrowing space suit technology from NASA for a line of dress shirts.
In 2011, with an original fundraising goal of $30,000, a runaway Kickstarter campaign netted them almost half a million dollars. They were in business.
Soon afterward, the “Apollo” dress shirt hit the market. Looking like a traditional button down, the Apollo is anything but. The shirt uses “phase change materials” to control body heat and reduce perspiration and odor. It also adapts to the wearer’s shape, and stays tucked in and wrinkle-free all day. As TechCrunch summarized, “In essence, it’s a magic shirt.”
That magic shirt led to magic pants, suits, and more. Ministry of Supply now makes high-performance smart clothing for both sexes, including a new line of intelligent jackets that respond to voice commands and learn to automatically heat to your desired temperature.
And recently, they extended their high-tech approach to manufacturing. Head into their Boston-based retail outlet on fashionable Newbury Street and you can have your high-performance shirt—or for that matter, suit, blouse, and pants—3D printed while you wait. It takes about 90 minutes. And the machine is a marvel. With 4,000 individual needles and a dozen different yarns, the printer can create any combination of materials and colors desired, with zero waste.
If you can’t make it to Boston, not a problem. These days, if you want 3D-printed clothing, all you need is a smartphone.
Since fashion designer Danit Peleg’s 2015 introduction of the first line of 3D-printed clothing available via the web, a half-dozen designers have followed suit. Both Reebok and New Balance deploy the technology, the former to upgrade the speed and quality of its manufacturing facilities, the latter to build custom insoles for athletes. And many other fashion houses are not far behind.
3D Printing Across All Retail Sectors
But fashion is only part of the story, as 3D printing is now showing up all over retail.
Staples, the office supply company, has been offering the service for years. They recently launched an online version whereby customers upload designs for office products from home, Staples employees print them in-store, and the final product is delivered to your door.
The French hardware manufacturer Leroy Merlin has even taken this a step further, allowing customers to print bespoke hardware in their stores. Need a ten-inch flat-head nail or a curving socket wrench made to reach around corners? They’ve got you covered.
And this is only where we are today. Over the next ten years, 3D printing will reshape retail in four key ways:
- The End of the Supply Chain: With 3D printing, retailers can now purchase raw materials and print inventory themselves, either at warehouses or in the retail outlet. This means the end of suppliers, manufacturers, and distributors.
- The End of Waste: Okay, maybe not the complete end of waste, but as consumers increasingly prefer eco-friendly products and retailers look to minimize materials cost, the exactitude of 3D printing is a ready-made solution.
- The End of the Spare Parts Market: If you’re a farmer in Iowa and your tractor breaks during harvest time, waiting a few days for a spare part could jeopardize the entire season. A 3D printer solves this problem. And it’ll solve the same problem for everything from coffee makers to skateboard wheels. This doesn’t just mean an end to the spare parts business, it also means a new level of longevity for the products we purchase.
- The Rise of User-Designed Products: Sure, there will always be some version of Apple in the market—an uber design-centric company pushing out products so slick they always find a buyer. Yet, for everything from fashion to furniture, ‘customer-designed’ will replace ‘designer-designed’ as the new standard.
Within the next decade, we’ll see Alexa placing our orders, 3D printers manufacturing those orders, and drones delivering the results to our doorsteps. The shopping mall as we know it today will no longer exist. Only the retail experiences involving virtual try-on mirrors, personalized shopping assistants, and novel technologies will survive.
Prepare for a future in which the retail supply chain is simplified and localized, with on-the-spot 3D printing that can meet any demand.
We must start thinking now about the next challenge: in a future that requires more individual shipments, how can we create emissions-free transportation vehicles and recyclable packaging that actually makes it to the recycling plant?
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