How 3D Printing Will Change the Customer Experience

Oct 30, 2015

Imagine contacting a company either online, by phone, or walking into their location and ordering products custom-made to your specifications. And then receiving the items quickly, at fair prices, for having exactly what you want, when you want it. Or even being able to make these items yourself!

Sound like a Michael J. Fox movie?  Welcome to 3D Printing, a technology which will enable larger scale mass customization of products on-demand, in the very near future.  

3D Printing harkens back to before the Industrial Revolution and mass production. When artisans, craftspeople, and tailors created products from forms and templates, but shaped to customers’ requirements and close to their premises, and when customers made more of their own products. Only this time the manufacturing is automated, atomized, and virtualized.

A Frost & Sullivan report, 3D Printing Technology – 9 Dimensional Assessment (Technical Insights), notes that 3D Printing is presently small scale, as the technology has not yet been tested on a larger scale. The printers are expensive, and objects still require costly hand finishing.

Nevertheless, these challenges will drive innovations to overcome them. Even so, the customized manufacturing of consumer and many commercial items offers substantial benefits and convenience that will outweigh the issues. Customers long ago have accepted that tradeoff, as long as the quality does not deviate significantly from their value for price expectations.

As a result, 3D Printing will disrupt the supply chain, which will be noted in an upcoming report on cloud ERP, by shrinking mass market manufacturing and distribution. In turn, eCommerce and bricks-and-mortar retailers will become service centers, performing on-demand 3D Printing.  It is already spawning specialist 3D Printing service companies like Shapeways.

But not too far down the road, 3D Printing could make many traditional B2C, B2B retailers and resellers, and even businesses like Shapeways obsolete, as high quality printers become more affordable, versatile, and user-friendly. Instead, these outlets will become like fabric shops where customers buy patterns and raw materials to make their apparel, as well as sewing machine dealers, like the specialist industrial sewing machine company I worked for in the 1970s.

Another Frost & Sullivan report, 3D Printing—Empowering the manufacturers of tomorrow, identified in-house, contract manufacturing, printing as a service, and retail in-home printing as future models. “Just like how Internet has made everyone a publisher, 3D Printing will make everyone a manufacturer,” said Robin Varghese, Visionary Innovation Research Associate.

 These changes will ultimately cascade 3D Printing into radically altering the nature of omni-channel customer contact center and retailer Customer Experiences: from handling product orders to making and assisting customers to make products.  More companies will have to become more like Dell, which has long differentiated itself in the PC marketplace with mass customization.  But as more 3D Printing takes places on customer premises, companies will have to provide online and in-person counter and field technical support.  Moreover, for both on-demand and at-home 3D Printing, service staff will have to become more technically skilled than they are presently, in order to efficiently assist customers.

For example, the customer-facing model that may emerge is a hybrid “3D Printers as Service”. This will be like the proven copy machine leasing and service model, as this also complex equipment requires materials, as well as service and support. But savvy vendors would also offer the options of 3D printing as a service and selling 3D printers and offering service contracts. These businesses will then be able to meet the needs of the 3D Printing market, however it evolves.

Brendan Read


Brendan Read is Senior Industry Analyst with over 25 years’ experience covering business, communications, staffing, and technology. He has worked in, prepared reports, and blogged on a wide range of topics including customer contact, CX, CRM, IoT, social media, supply chain, and BC/DR. He also has backgrounds in construction, manufacturing, materials, resource extraction, site selection, and transportation. He examines the broad economic, environmental, innovation, political, and social mega trends, and their impacts on businesses, markets, and society.

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