Futureworld: 3D printing is the tip of the iceberg

jetsonAmericans growing up in the 1970s know the image of TV cartoon series character Jane Jetson pressing a button to make dinner as if by magic. The prescience of this notion was probably unintentional, but with 3D printing now a reality it’s time to think seriously about what it means. Making good strategic use of technologies like 3D printing, robotics and the “internet of things” will depend less on understanding the technology than on correctly forecasting the changes they will bring. In that spirit, here are few predictions that might help.

1. Super durable consumer durables

The throwaway society lamented by some is very real. Especially for things like consumer electronics, repair generally doesn’t make sense. Now, however, with Intel forecasting 15 billion internet connected devices by 2015 and the advent of scalable 3D printing, we could see a change to the equation. For problems that are purely digital, remote diagnosis and repair makes sense. For problems that are mechanical, new parts can be fabricated on demand and installed either at home or in a service centre.

The limiting factor is likely to be knowhow, both among consumers and technicians who do the repairs. But given that each washing machine or fridge out there will be self-aware, instructions should be easy enough to deliver. Closing the loop will entail a design-for-service mentality up front that ensures easy disassembly and takes suggestions from customers for improvements. The final piece will be pricing models that earn money for life, not just at point of sale. See General Electric for a primer on “power by the hour” and IKEA for lessons on co-opting the consumer to work for you.

2. Urban enrichment and enablement

Poor, disenfranchised urban consumers represent a huge potential market within easy striking distance of most US and European supply chains, yet few have cracked the code in servicing this opportunity. Some like 7-Eleven and CVS have been working the issue hard for many years now, but materials handling limitations in small footprint stores plus terrible distribution logistics have been tough to overcome. Today, smart robotic warehouses being developed by companies like Symbotic, based in Wilmington, Massachusetts, offer enough density and flexibility to serve these markets economically with a much wider range of grocery items than is currently possible.

This means more fresh food for sale in inner cities, but also dramatically more variety at retail for everything. More new business formation, more jobs, better health and, before you know it, a whole new “emerging market” just a few miles away from headquarters.

3. Collaborative retail

Store-based retail is getting killed by Amazon-addicted consumers whose loyalty is paper thin. Suppose, however, that stores did more than just carry product. Additive manufacturing (aka 3D printing) has the potential to custom-make many consumer products given progress in the materials sciences that will go from simple resins to metals, ceramics, fabrics and more. Add some well-trained staff and the store could be a place where consumers come to solve problems and experiment with ideas. Imagine the retailer REI deploying these ideas for its ultra-loyal outdoorsy customer base – not hard to see how this beats Amazon.

Local manufacturing could also include food or health and beauty products, building on the example of Coca-Cola’s Freestyle machines. Why not offer 1,000 fragrance options for shampoo with a formulate-and-fill-on-demand system that is better for the consumer, more environmentally friendly and cheaper to keep in stock? This is not rocket science, but it certainly could change the role of the store in retail.

4. Low-cost healthcare

Exploding healthcare costs, especially in the US, are largely a result of terrible supply chains, but technology is likely to solve this problem too. Smart devices could include diagnostic equipment in hospitals, clinics, pharmacies and even homes. Linked to ubiquitous electronic medical records, such equipment will be able to prescribe and order drugs or consumables well in advance of the notoriously expensive emergency room system of “demand capture”.

Unlike other consumer products, healthcare is essentially never wanted, but always needed. This means taste is nearly irrelevant, but biology and demographics are all important. Demand forecasting should be relatively easy as an actuarial exercise, assuming we have the data. Imagine Cardinal Health or their kin maintaining a massive public health needs profile that is constantly being fed by a smart remote diagnostic network. Throw in 3D printing for implantables and prosthetics, plus robotic surgeons as efficiency kickers, and healthcare could end up being a much better deal in 2020 than it is today.

Think big

The worst thing a young supply chain strategist could do with all this is get stuck looking for cost savings by applying such cool new technologies to the world as it is today. Unless you open your mind completely you’re likely to miss the really important shifts until it’s too late.

Kevin O’Marah
Chief Content Officer
SCM World

Please contact me directly with any comments, questions or suggestions. I welcome your feedback.


Author Kevin O'Marah

Chief Content Officer, SCM World

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