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Brick and mortar stores are missing opportunities for 3D print retail because of a lack of internal infrastructure. John Hauer of Get3DSmart shares why major retail stores are not adopting this technology despite having been initially intrigued and excited about 3D printing. Looking at how major brick and mortar retailers can stay ahead of the tech wave of 3D printing and make brick and mortar stores relevant again with good product and good business consulting guides.
We’re going to talk about brick and mortar 3D print retail today with John Hower of Get3DSmart. John’s been writing articles in the 3D print industry for quite sometime. He’s been probably one of the writers I’ve followed since the very beginning when we first got into 3D printing because he has a lot of perspective on it being business oriented. That’s what I’ve always really appreciate about his angle on it.
Get3DSmart is his company and he is the founder and CEO of it. It’s a consulting practice that helps large and mid sized companies understand and capitalize on 3D print opportunities. I think that’s a really interesting idea. It’s like, how can 3D printing be viable for our business? Is this going to disrupt our business? There’s a whole lot of evaluation that needs to happen in it.
One of the biggest areas of that is that they work with retailers and retail suppliers. Because those are biggest areas that we know are going to be disruptive. We’re already seeing it happening in small ways. The infrastructure that’s there is just a mess. It hasn’t quite figured out how it’s going to work itself out. The ones that work it out fastest are going to have a greater opportunity in the marketplace.
One of the really interesting articles I think that he’s written was one about whether Walmart could own the retail 3D print business by 2020. Thinking about that, there’s really good point in the article where it’s saying not everyone’s going to own a 3D printer, not everyone has design skills. But 90% of Americans live within fifteen minutes of a Walmart.
If you can put your 3D print objects or your 3D print designs or whatever it is, your 3D print business within a Walmart, now you have access to more Americans than any other way. It’s a bigger business. It would be mass market access for sure. It could also make brick and mortar viable again, which is a really interesting concept.
Let’s talk with John because I love that our experiences overlap, so we have lots to talk about about that. Let’s hear our interview with John.
Listen to the podcast here:
Brick and Mortar 3D Print Retail
John, thank you so much for joining us. We’ve been looking forward to this conversation. You and I have been LinkedIn friends for quite sometime now. I think we have great mind share on the 3D smart brick and mortar 3D print retail subject.
Thank you for having me. It’s exciting. I’ve been following your podcast for years now and having a chance to be on it is great. Thanks.
I think it’s really interesting. I want to start with retail because our experience has been that retail is kind of a behemoth who is taking a whole lot longer to discover 3D printing than they should. I’ve read some of the articles you’ve wrote about Walmart owning the retail business by 2020 and things like that. I’m curious as to what your viewpoint is. Why is it taking so long for them and what can we do to speed things up?
Retail, I don’t think is one of the most innovative businesses in terms of technology adaption. That’s been part of the problem. I think 3D printing really has to own some of the problem as well. As you look at specifically plastic type of 3D printing, whether it’s SLS of FDM or whatever, it’s probably not as good a quality and probably not as fast and as low a cost as we would all like yet at this point. There are certainly indications on the horizon that that’s about to change. You look at what HP is doing and some of the other companies. I think that’ll help, it’ll help drive prices down and make them affordable.
One of the things that we learned in retail really quickly was we could sell 3D printed products at a premium. Sometimes just because they were 3D printed, but not at an extraordinary premium. That’s where I think the market from a 3D printing perspective and retail have to come together. That said, we’ve hit the trough of disillusionment with some people in 3D printing and some segments of 3D printing.
Retail was really hot on the subject for a while and slowed down. I think they’re really starting to pick back up. We’re seeing it across multiple categories, everything from décor to jewelry to apparel to tech accessories and others. I think there’s really an opportunity to come back into that market and really play a strong role.
I completely agree. In our experience with retail is that they are very slow to move. But when you recognize that something is of a cost and risk advantage, you should move faster. I always liken it to when Walmart decided that they were going to into CFLs, into compact fluorescent light bulbs. They pretty much shifted an entire industry over.
Because it made cost effective sense and it was just a better way to go in their minds and that’s how they did it. They just shifted it. The same thing could be happening here with 3D printing because in a zero inventory environment, there’s very little risk for retailers. You can bring out designs and it’s so much more cost effective. We know firsthand how costly it is to bring out a new product.
I think one of the big challenges is the model that retail operates in. In general, the way it works is the suppliers do most of the heavy lifting. A retailer like Walmart, their goal is to drive traffic and create that atmosphere where people can come and push the buy button. They count on suppliers like Procter & Gamble and Nestle and Jordan Group and all these other big suppliers of consumer products to, in store, drive traffic or promote their products through in store displays and signage and all the rest. Online, through the advertising that they sell on their sites.
With 3D printing, that model was, at least in the early stages, was tough to create because there weren’t a lot of big name consumer products companies who could bring thousands or millions of dollars to the table to help drive the adaption of 3D printing. What happened was, it was really all on the retailer’s back. That was a divergent model for them. As I look more in the present and into the future, I think consumer products companies are starting to get it and look at 3D printing as a significant competitive advantage. It can be a way to create a niche and a new digital channel where their competitors can’t play.
That’s so interesting you say that because we also see it as a product design problem. That’s obviously our perspective. We understand how products get placed in the market because that’s our 25 years of experience. When you look at how a buyer buys product and how it shifted over time, it used to be that the buyer had a lot of education. You’re talking about the retail buyer in a particular category, whether it is jewelry or home décor. That buyer would have all this experience in the marketplace and what was selling and what wasn’t.
I’d say, about fifteen years ago, it shifted and was pushed all completely on to the supplier or the vendor, those supplying home décor products. Really, it was about, I would say in the last ten years of that, it shifted completely to a sourcing strategy and not a design strategy anymore. They took out the design process in it. Suppliers were no longer providing good design value, the buyers had no design opinion because they were new to the category every time. The factories in Asia were making what was already selling. You ended up in the situation in which there’s no designer in the process anymore that could have pushed that agenda for 3D printing.
I would agree with that. I think the big challenge is, it’s so hard to push an idea through and get it to become a product. In fact, it’s estimated that one out of every 1,000 ideas actually becomes a product. Some of the biggest barriers are the upfront design cost and prototyping and R&D all that stuff. Certainly, the upfront cost of production as well, making molds, committing to huge inventories, having redundant inventory and hundreds or potentially thousands of locations. 3D printing helps flatten that a lot and could potentially help 100 or 200 products get to market.
I think there’s another opportunity as well, and that is those products that are near the end of their lifecycle that still have some demand but not enough to justify on going production. I think consumer products companies have a real opportunity to try to bring back some of those products by selling them in an on demand fashion versus trying to continue to offer them with mass manufacturing at a limited style or a limited number of colors. It could be, theoretically, a boom for the market to bring some of those old products back.
It’s a huge opportunity in fact. I often hear, usually from friends or family members that I know because they know that we design products that get manufactured and sold into retailers like Costco. Costco is a really good example of this. Like my sister, she’ll buy some book case, this big lighted book case where they have a furniture rollout. There’s a program going on at Costco and like, “Wow, that’s great.” They really would like a TV stand that matches it but they don’t understand that the buyer who buys this book case is different from a buyer who buys any TV stands for Costco.
They’re not at all thinking of coordinating the designs together and making matching ones available. That’s not a 3D print example but you can see how this could play in where a product that otherwise wouldn’t be, like you said, the vendor or even the retailer wouldn’t make the big bet to carry it in every store, could definitely carry a lot more products that do coordinate or are matching with other things they’re selling because they don’t have to invest in the inventory.
Absolutely. When you look at the merchandising area of retail, trend spotting and forecasting is big business. Even in today’s, in a world of big data and everything else that a retailer has at their disposal, they still bet right about half the time, half the time they don’t buy enough product, half the time they buy too much. I think you have to look at this cohesively. 3D printing or any digital manufacturing technology plays a huge role at the beginning and end of the process.
There’s always a spot for mass manufacturing. I think it’s incumbent upon retailers to recognize that, leverage 3D printing at the beginning of a lifecycle when demand is unknown and then leverage it again at the end of the lifecycle when again, there’s still some demand but not enough to justify on going production.
That’s so smart. When I worked for Herman Miller, we would do something we called a non obsolescent strategy. We would actually build into the design because this would happen in large scale office spaces. Let’s say Coca-Cola would put in a tremendous amount of office spaces, like building after building and they wanted to use a particular fabric. That’s great but when that fabric is 20 years old and the manufacturer, they’re only making it for Coca-Cola and the Coca-Cola red, nobody wants to keep making that product.
We set up a system by which you could do it with core materials. The materials would always be there and you could always dye the fabric in the right color. It would never be obsoleted completely. It might require a slightly longer lead time, which just like in 3D printing, it might take you a couple extra days to get it but you could still have it.
You see a lot of that with 2D digital printing where fabrics are being printed now and they’re being textured and lots of other things. I’ve been a big proponent or a big evangelist for years that 2D printing is really a lot like 3D printing and some of the same challenges and opportunities that presented themselves in 2D are now presenting themselves in 3D.
John, what do you think it’s going to take for brick and mortar 3D print retail to really tip? I’m going to give you, where I’m going, in terms of inventory is really what I’m thinking. These companies are very much set in their ways. You would think that bean counters, the financial sides of the company, would realize the benefits of not having to commit so many dollars to inventory.
Even at that 50-50 risk level you were talking about, that half the time it works, half the time it doesn’t, that they could save so much money and develop and bring to market at a 1/100th or if not 1/1000th of the cost of distributing a product to all 3,000 plus stores of Walmart. A digital on demand product, it’s a lot lower risk and you would think still has great retail potential. Are they going to have to fail completely and be on the brink of death before they adapt it?
I think it depends on whether we’re talking brick and mortar 3D print retail or eCommerce or omni channel, whichever one you want to call the combination.
I was talking about brick and mortar 3D print retail really.
In brick and mortar, you have a huge investment in bringing 3D printing in any flavor into the store. I’ve always advocated more of a iteration and iterative type approach where you start with order entry. You got a tablet on a counter somewhere that has all these digital products that people can search through, potentially even customizing then place an order for. The second iteration, I really think retailers should bring fulfillment into the store, some kind of a locker system where those digital products that are printed off site can be delivered into the store and placed into a locker.
Theoretically, even products that are potential sellers, inventory can be kept. If you’ve got iPhone 7 phone cases that you’ve 3D printed, you could theoretically put ten or fifteen of them in the locker and allow people to order. Then maybe in that third iteration, you start to actually bring 3D printing into the store. In the early days, that’s almost always going to be a full service type offering. Photo processing is a great analogy for retailers to think of. In the early days, you had a photo lab. You had somebody working back there, there was a lot of manual steps. It was very consuming.
The advantage was when someone came in to the photo lab with a roll of film, they came into the store twice. That was two opportunities for the retailer to fill that customer’s basket. In a longer term, as you start to automate it more, the kiosk type approach really starts to make sense. Again, technology’s got to catch up in order to make that really realistic.
That’s interesting that you say that because it brought to mind the whole Staples model of what happened with Staples over the last couple of years. They’ve failed at trying to do that. They brought it into their copy center in limited store sets. It was underwhelming in terms of it’s success level there. Then they shifted it to being online and being distributed through Sculpteo.
It still is, from what I have been able to gather on the back side, it’s still pretty underperforming. Why do think it hasn’t really worked in that model? Because I thought the same thing as you. I thought bring more people into the store to experience it, even at a novelty level, was at least something.
Let’s start with that for a minute. When I was with 3DLT, my previous company, we did some research with Sears. We talked to 4,600 consumers about their perceptions towards 3D printing. When we asked people, what is most compelling about 3D printing to you in a public form, inevitably, somebody will say customization and personalization. 17% of our audience said that was what was most important. An overwhelming 49% said what was most important was the ability to get access to products that they couldn’t get otherwise.
It really started to hone in on that idea that it was about better selection and more products that maybe they wouldn’t get any other way. The third answer, which really ties into this, was 16% of people said what was most compelling was the ability to watch those products being made either online or in store. We really thought and I still believe that the experiential side of 3D printing is a huge opportunity for brick and mortar.
When you look at brick and mortar over the last 20 years, it’s challenging to name one other technology that’s been a boom for it versus eCommerce. When you look at desktop, eCommerce, mobile, those all really benefited the Amazons of the world more than they did to Walmart. When you look at 3D printing though, especially when you see people pressed up against the glass, watching products materialize out of thin air, that could be one of the few technologies either in the last 20 years or maybe in the next ten that could really support and benefit the in store experience.
Who doesn’t love to watch the donuts be made at Krispy Kreme or something? It seems like the right model.
I have people tell me, “Oh, that’s just a fad. People will get tired of it.” Go to a pizza shop on a Friday night that has a glass where you can watch the pizzas being made, you’ll see kids pressed up against the glass because whatever’s going on back there is way more exciting than what mom and dad are talking about at the table.
We talked recently to Beehex and they’re making the 3D print pizza machine. I think that their model of doing it in that entertainment space as their first entry into the marketplace is so smart just because of that.
I would agree.
I was actually thinking of the Krispy Kreme example before you mentioned that because once a month, we have a couple of young girls, and once a month they want to go out for donuts. I always want to go to the more local donut shop because I like the taste of the donuts better, but the girls are always insisting we go to Krispy Kreme. They never get tired of seeing the mechanisms and all the things happening. I agree with you, John.
I think that that does really present a huge opportunity for retail that is really, the way I see it anyway, in the future, going to struggle to remain relevant. Not only does 3D printing and on demand manufacturing present an opportunity to them to offer unique products compared to their other competitors at a much lower cost to develop them because you don’t have to invest in tooling or inventory. Then also to remain relevant as they don’t need as much warehouse space to store product.
I’ll give you another insight. There’s a mass market store chain here in the mid west called Meijer. They have about 250 units in their headquarter out at Grand Rapids. They’re unique in a way that they own all of their real estate. All these 250 stores are owned by the Meijer family. It’s very difficult for them to just move out of one location and move into another. Each store is a couple hundred thousand square feet.
I was talking to a retail store manager there a couple years ago and he estimated that the average Meijer store at that time was 25% to 30% white space. TVs are shrinking, books and magazines are going away. A lot of those core products that they used to sell in mass and took up a lot of square footage have evaporated.
The question then became how do we start to drive that experience in store? If you went to a Myer store four or five years ago, you’d find the fish tank, the aquarium section, way in the back corner of the store. Lately, they’ve been moving it out into the center of the store and creating this massive experience. Lo and behold, you find kids pressed up against the glass, checking out the fish.
Keep them entertained while they shop. We have firsthand experience with Meijer because we lived in Grand Rapids when I worked for Herman Miller. We just loved it there. Meijer is an incredible store, if you’ve not experienced that before, because they sell everything. That was my first experience with the Walmart level, because we had always lived in areas without a lot of Walmarts. That was my first experience at that kind of level of a store that really sold everything.
It’s a little different than your Walmart experience for sure. That’s really interesting, what you were telling us about, what they’re selling shifting and they end up with extra space. I think that’s the real challenge for big box retail to remain relevant going forward, having to carry all that overhead of their space, if nothing else, and also employees and whatnot. They’ve got to continue to remain relevant in this really new world that’s developing around them.
I’ll tell you how interesting it is. If you follow Meijer on LinkedIn, you’ll notice that their store people, their store operations people, are actually trying to sell that square footage in the store within a store concept. They’re actually advertising their square footage and making it available to retailers. Whether the 3D printing goes in store as something that’s owned by the retailer or something that’s more of a store within a store concept, and there are a few people that are out there doing that today, that opportunity was square footage in a high traffic area is there. If somebody capitalizes on it, they can succeed with it.
The challenge for retailers is, their risk reverse up until it starts to be really successful and then they want to own it. One of the questions they got to ask themselves upfront is, what do you want to own? Is this the coin star type of business where you get your five or six percent, red box type thing? Or is this going to be core to your business, you’re going to own it and you’re going to manage it? Each model comes with different cost structures.
It really does. I want to touch back on something you said earlier. When we asked you a question, you said, “It depends on if we’re talking about brick and mortar, omni channel or eCommerce.” Why is it really different with an eCommerce model?
With eCommerce, you don’t have to worry about, just like you don’t have to worry about redundant inventory with in stores, you don’t have to worry about redundant equipment at potentially hundreds or thousands of locations. Instead, you set up a 3D print shop within maybe 20 of distribution centers and you can handle a lot of your work that way. You’re not really as concerned about the in store experience.
That said, you still have to have very professional products on your web pages that are as good as what you would find from a mass produced product. Consumer products companies spend a ton of money preparing those products for sale online. They’ve got to get product photography, often they’re doing 360 degree videos, they spend a lot of money in copyrighting and getting those products as refined as possible.
From an eCommerce perspective, one of the lessons we learned very early was if we just threw a rendering up there and the description was horrible, it wasn’t going to sell. But if we had lifestyle photography and unboxing videos and good quality copyrighting, we were able to push more product, we were able to convert.
I think the big challenge for eCommerce is it’s not too difficult for them to drive traffic, but it’s got to convert. In brick and mortar, it’s probably a different challenge of getting people in there and getting eyeballs on that section of the store. It’s a little different challenge. Each comes with its own set of business methods. Both can be very successful.
I agree, I still think that there is going to continue to be a place for brick and mortar 3D print retail. It’s got to change dramatically but there’ll still be a place. We had an interview last week with a company that produces a 3D printed end use product for consumers. Their challenge has been online, how to really communicate the tactile quality of the product, the perceived value of it because, it’s not a terribly inexpensive product.
It really is a very appropriate product to have on a shelf in a retail store. That’s the best way you can experience it and understand that it is worth the $120 that you’re going to pay for it. I do see retail continuing to be relevant for people to have a showroom, if nothing else, to go to and “kick the tires” of the product and experiencing it, believing it, as compared to having to just trust online through video and pictures. You can’t always tell the complete story that way.
Absolutely. It comes down to this. Wherever you’re going to sell that 3D printed product, whether it’s online or in store, you’re going to have some marketing cost that goes along with it. I’m frequently surprised by people that say, “I’ve got a great product. It’s 3D printable. We can manufacture it on demand. I want to get it into retail, how am I going to do that?” I coach them on how they could potentially work within an Amazon or a Walmart and they’re ready to go. I say, “But, your products are going to sell going to for 100 bucks. You better be prepared to spend $25 to market it.”
Each and every time, whether you go in store or whether you go online, that cost never goes away. There’s always a cost towards driving people to your product and getting them to buy it. Whether that’s packaging, signage, displays, or whether that’s digital advertising, paid search and all the things that go along with it.
I could not agree more, John. In fact, that’s the exact conversation we have with pretty much every inventor, private labeler or large supplier that we talk to. It’s the same conversation. “How are planning to market this? Because it doesn’t matter what I design for you. If you aren’t willing to spend that amount of money or if you don’t have a way in which you have already planned to market it, then I can’t design the best product for you.”
Typically, you’re going to end up spending a lot of that money up front and people say, “If I can just go 3D printing, I don’t have all the investment in getting my product to market.” Yes, some of it. You don’t have as much in tooling and mass manufacturing and inventory and shipping and all that stuff, but you still got to market it. Typically, you pay those dollars upfront and hope you’re going to get a return on them. Let’s say you want to sell 10,000 units and you got a marketing cost of 50 bucks, that’s a half million dollars you got to stroke a check for.
To distribute a product at mass market retail obviously varies tremendously, depending on the price point of the product. In our experience, you’re spending somewhere in the $5 to $10 million between manufacturing it and distributing and marketing. But the retailer is going to, they’re going to stock it and they’re buying it from you. They’ve got to pay that if it’s brick and mortar. It’s a huge investment. Certainly, you’re right, 3D printing of on demand product, developing that design is a lot less expensive. The marketing, you’re right, it’s still the same problems exist. They are costly.
That’s why I think maybe 100 products get to market instead of one. You still have some upfront investment and you still have to be well capitalized but not as well capitalized. That can be a big variance.
I agree. I couldn’t agree more. Boy, see I told you, we had a great similar mind share here. What do you think it’s going to take? Do you think that there are going to be somebody who’s going to come in and disrupt it completely and change the model all together? Some of these Main Street brick and mortar shops, that’s what I keep thinking, maybe some Main Street needs to adopt it first and really show them how to do it.
I’ll go back to your Staples question from before. One of the big things that I challenge, office supply retailers and quick printers and others who want to enter the market in, is what kind of products are you going to sell? Because if your plan is to have somebody walk in with a key fob, with a USB drive and say, “I want one of these,” you’re probably going to struggle for a really long time. Because you got all the QC effort that goes into it, you got to have people that understand CAD and 3D printing at all of these different retail locations.
Probably your better option is to drive all of that traffic through a website and then allow them to print locally. It allows you to do all the QC work upfront and potentially automate much of that. The other thing it allows you to do is ask that designer or customer a really important question, which is, are you sure you just want one of these or would you like to add this product to our catalog and earn a residual each and every time it’s sold?
If you can do that, then I think you can start to build a really big cadre of products that are available for consumers and distribute that wealth a little bit. I think that’s a big opportunity that’s been missed by the likes of Staples and UPS Store and some of the others who’ve been thinking more along the lines of, “I want to have a place where somebody can just bring me their file and get one of them and walk away.” That dollars just aren’t there.
I think that’s also probably a miss in the promotional product arena as well because they benefit from a large catalog of items. If you were to build that catalog with your customers, that makes a lot of sense too.
I think as we start to think of what it’s going to take, it certainly comes down to killer applications. You have to ask where those are going to reside, which segment of retail those are most likely to come from. There’s been a lot of emphasis around footwear and apparel so far, tech accessories have certainly played a role. But I think there are other more niche applications that still have a huge opportunity. Automotive is a great example.
When you look at automotive retailers or any segment for that matter, you typically have a big three and then you have Walmart and Amazon. If you walk into the average Walmart store, you might find two or three different types of tire stem caps. Amazon has 22,000 different types of tire stem caps, everything from Hello Kitty to dice to, you name it. For some of those retailers, those types of applications might be a better fit.
When you look at the supply chain cost for an Auto Zone or an Advanced Auto Parts with 4,000 stores, very small square footage, but there’s constant movement of parts both with consumers and in their B2B businesses. It could be a huge opportunity for them. I think if one of those applications catches fire, then you could really start to see it spreading out into other segments of retail. Sporting goods or pets or office supplies or whatever that next market segment is.
I’m bullish on automotive, I think that’s a big one, especially at aftermarket where there’s lots of accessories, lots of smaller products, tons of stuff that fits the plastic category that we can do today that would be what I would consider killer applications in the next couple of years.
I think that’s really interesting. I was at a private label meetup a couple of weeks ago. One of the guys there was working in the automotive area, doing some of these things. He was really smart about it because automotive in Amazon world is a gated product category because there’s high liability and there is a lot of consumer product safety regulations that go into lot of the products that are produced there.
It matters where you’re putting the product on your automotive in terms of an aftermarket onto your car. As long as you’ve done that smartly though, he was doing extremely well selling just niche products that fit specific to model of cars or trucks and things like that. I agree with you, he has hit on something that was doing tremendous amount of volume. It’s a matter of someone like an Auto Zone and a big company for the products that are regulated to make sure that the designs are tested.
That’s really where we find the fall off happen, is they get encumbered by the design and development process that they still have to go through it, make some, test some. They don’t have, in their corporations, that kind of department because that’s not how they operate.
It’s a partnership. You got to go back to those consumer product companies, their suppliers and work cooperatively with them in order to get some of these products to market. The opportunity’s there. The average car in the US is on the road for eleven years. There’s lots opportunity for those cars to continue to be upgraded. Audio is a great example. People that have four or five, six year old cars that don’t have bluetooth, don’t have some of the other newer features, they want to add an aftermarket receiver. That’s always going to require a dash kit, especially in today’s world where almost every car dash is different, and arguably the manufacturers do that intentionally to get you to buy a new car versus upgrading your old one.
There’s only two or three suppliers of those dash kits for audio in the country and all of their products are mass manufactured. It would seem to make a lot of sense to me to start getting those audio dash kits in digital format, putting the 3D printer in the BestBuy electronics department and allowing them to manufacture those dash kits on the fly. It’s not as much of a product that requires that level three type testing.
It’s not going to impact somebody’s survivability in a crash. It’s more of a product that can help extend the life of the car. That is the trend within the industry, people are keeping their cars longer and longer and longer.
To me, that seems like an opportunity for a retailer who’s forward thinking to actually want to gain more margin from things that are already selling. If a BestBuy were to invest in an engineer to put the time into creating those dash kits and the 3D files that they could print locally, then they wouldn’t need to buy them from a supplier anymore and can make more money.
It’s really similar to what we see happening in the app world where we always hear about, “Oh, Apple’s now included this function in its iOS which supplants an app you used to have to buy separately.” They want to include it in and make the money and they put an app company maybe out of business or at least a product out of business. I think for BestBuy or other retailers like that, this is their opportunity. I don’t think they realize it because they’re not investing in it yet.
I think you hit a huge analogy there, which is if you don’t own the platform, if you don’t own the technology, sooner or later you’re going to get put out of business. Plenty of apps have been victims of that. That’s why I go back to that question I asked earlier to retailers, which is what do you want to own? Do you want to own the platform or do you just want to play? Because if you’re going to play, sooner or later, somebody who does own the platform is going to start deciding when and where you get the benefit.
If you own the platform, yes, there’s a lot more investment upfront but get to make those decisions. When you start to see intensive demand from a certain product, you can switch it over to private label or you can decide to bring it in house. I think that’s a big picture strategy that retailer’s have missed. They missed it with eCommerce, it cost them billions to catch up. They missed it with mobile. Right after they figured out eCommerce, mobile came along and destroyed traditional eCommerce and it’s taking them again billions of dollars to catch up. For them, they’ve just got to decide at some point if they’re going to get out of the passenger seat and into the driver seat.
Amen. I think we should end right there. That’s exactly how we think as well. John, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us on the state of 3D printing in retail today. It’s been a lot of fun and really enlightening.
It was my pleasure. Again, thanks for inviting me. It’s great to talk to you guys in person. We don’t get a chance to do that often enough I think in this industry. It was an exciting day. Thanks.
Brick and Mortar 3D Print Retail – Final Thoughts
I really like where John was going with talking about the automotive industry. It’s probably one of the most practical industries that could use 3D printed parts. It actually ties into a little bit of my visit to SoCal MakerCon. There was an impressive 3D printer there by Markforged. It’s a high end FFF 3D printer. Their minimum 3D printer starts at like $5,000 and they have them at ten and fifteen and they print carbon fiber filament.
They sent us a sample of that. They had two parts they sent us, carbon fiber and then some other clear material. I was very impressed with this 3D printer because they were showing us examples. This is why I bring it up. They were showing us examples of parts that they were printing that there were manifold parts for car engines. There were other structural parts for automotive parts that are really practical.
They can print with plastics that melt at such high temperature that can withstand the heat that an engine produces under the hood, even on a hot day in the southwest of the US. It’s really practical. I always thought of it being practical to 3D print automotive, aftermarket automotive parts that were like clips that go behind door panels to hold pieces, these plastic clips that snap in once. Then when you have to take apart something to repair it, they pretty much get destroyed.
You could do parts like that or you could do other simple plastic fittings. They’re talking about engine parts. I remember having a little bumper clip problem because I used to have a Saturn and it had a plastic bumper. The bumper had this like, you get a little ding in a parking lot and all of a sudden the clip breaks. It costs you like 50 bucks to go in there and just get the part and then they still got to put it on the car. It was ridiculous.
Our future son in law had this problem on his Dodge Charger recently. I don’t know what had happened but his front bumper was coming off and he could not drive at normal highway speeds without the thing flapping. He took it in to our mechanic who just happened to have some similar clip spare parts and was able to put it back for him almost at no cost. That I think was dumb luck that they had the parts.
If you could just go to Auto Zone or Pep Boys or whatever and they could 3D print you the clip that you need and it doesn’t have to be ordered and they don’t have to stock it, these are practical applications. The engine parts really blew me away because of the temperature. You don’t have to go buy a cast metal part.
I really think this idea though that 3D printing can make brick and mortar retail relevant again is really a critical factor that John’s talking about here that we believe in. This is why we got so passionate about 3D printing. We see something so broken in the retail market, in the supply structure to that retail market and all kinds of things. 3D printing can be the answer.
However, lots of things have to happen. You really need some good guides, like John is doing with his company, Get3DSmart. You need some good guides to help you figure this out. We consider ourself guides on the product side of things. If you don’t have good product or your product isn’t achieving the same criteria, the same qualities that people expect from their mass market regularly made consumer products, then it’s not going to work for you.
Being able to have guides to help you through that, it could really transform your business and keep it going for the future. I’ve mentioned this multiple times already, I think probably this week, three times. I’m writing these articles about virtual reality and augmented reality. I’m passionate and excited about it and I’m a huge tech skeptic about new stuff. It takes me a long time.
The reason that I’m really excited about it is because of the way that it is shifting the market. It’s doing something that 3D printing should have had happen. The reason it didn’t and isn’t is because the content people are pushing it in VR so people who are excited to make virtual reality games or apps or 360 degree videos, all of those people are actually pushing the hardware to get better and do better things.
On our side, the 3D printer itself said, “Here we are. Make anything you want.” There’s no professionally generated content or not as much as there needs to be by any means being created. Whereas here, the virtual reality world, they’re creating the content first and the hardware is having to catch up. The hardware is like struggling to catch up. There’s all these investments happening to make that happen sooner.
Also, there’s though what we can see here, we see it, there’s huge viability on a brick and mortar retail side. 3D print at retail is going to be tremendously valuable because it saves money, it allows greater diversity, it makes you come into the store and experience it. Like John talked about, you could watch it being made. You can have an experiential process going on in your store, so you can make those things happen. All of that things are a great value to brick and mortar and they need to stay relevant.
In VR and AR, what’s happening is the media companies are seeing value in it because they’re saying that, “Hey, we can have brands and ads and there’s a monetization process in it.” In a 3D print system, they’re looking at, “We have to upend and disrupt our entire supply chain and our distribution centers.” The prospect of doing it just doesn’t seem viable to them when they don’t see great content. They don’t see something highly desired. We’ve talked about that earlier this week.
I think the opportunity that retail, maybe they know it, maybe they don’t, but the big opportunity in addition to the other things we mentioned, is that they can actually pay for a professionally designed, custom and exclusive designs for them to sell at a particular retailer for far less money than they would have to spend stocking in all their stores across the country a product that they need to buy from a factory and stock to have inventory on. It would cost them so much more.
They can but they won’t. The reason that they won’t is because they don’t see a demand for it. You know that nothing happens at retail unless they already see somebody wanting to buy it or buying it somewhere else. We don’t that from firsthand experience. Until somebody caves in and spend some money and does some great content and shows them how good it could be, it’s not going to happen anytime soon.
The other thing I think that’s going to stop it from happening anytime soon is I don’t think that retail is going to embrace it and take even a calculated risk and experiment with it until it’s almost too late and their store is dying because they’re losing out to Amazon and they can’t afford the overhead of all their stores and they close half of their stores before they embrace this idea.
That’s why I think an upstart or smaller retailer could just eclipse a bunch of bigger ones in no time at all by doing something like this. You could move from what is fourth or fifth place and just move right into second. I don’t think you’re going to supply at Walmart anytime soon but you could certainly move right into second place.
Especially because Walmart is trying to duplicate Amazon in a lot of ways. They’re riffing or mimicking off of them, learning from them. They’re going to try to remain more relevant that way. But you have to realize that even as big as Amazon is, it’s still only 20% of the overall market. I’m surprised it’s that low. I thought it was higher than that. It fluctuates at different times of the year, but overall, if you look at it from a mass market retail breakout, it’s still only 20%.
I want to go back to the VR thing. Basically I would have had a much easier time convincing you to buy a Microsoft HoloLens than I did convince you to buy a 3D printer? Because you see there’s content there and you’re excited about it, you’re jazzed about it, you’re writing about it. We always talk about how it took me six months to convince, “All right, we need to buy a 3D printer.” What about the HoloLens?
I have to say that I did like the HoloLens when I tried it out but I think you might have an easier time convincing me to buy Meta glasses. First off, the glasses are pretty ugly and they’re cumbersome and they’re heavy so I don’t love them. It is what it is. My issue is that I just don’t see, for the novelty of it right now, I don’t see the apps or games or things that we would do on it as exciting yet. There still needs to be more of that coming in. I think it’s coming.
There’s a lot of money being put into it. I think within a year, I would agree in no time at all. I think it would end up like when we bought Rockband and it sat in the ottoman after being used. It’ll be like, “Okay, I’d played all these songs, now what I do?” It was a fad. We used to play it on weekends with a bunch of family members coming over. We’d have parties doing it for maybe six months, nine months. Then its novelty wore off and we didn’t do anymore. I can see that.
I enjoyed using the HoloLens. I got to use the HoloLens in October at the Digital Footprint Conference to actually build three dimensional models within it from the tools and primitives, stock parts that were there. I get to experience that in terms of using VR to create models to 3D print. It was very clunky. It was not easy to do. I could not make something in my mind’s eye with any kind of efficiency or speed like I can just using my normal CAD program.
This is why I’m interested in it because I do think that maybe we’re just going to dump brick and mortar retail all together and go straight VR. If that happens we’re going to have a major economic collapse in this country again because there are so many jobs and real estate and everything are built around brick and mortar retail. They’re going to struggle. They’re going to struggle to remain relevant. That’s why they need to become more relevant. That’s why they need to be doing this.
The only one that’s impressed up so far with doing it Lowe’s. They’re really, I guess, testing it in a very serious way. I think they’re smartly testing it. They’re testing it, figuring out what’s working, then saying, “What do we have to fix in our infrastructure system to try next?” They’re going about it very methodically. I appreciate that.
As much as I really don’t love the products that are there, some of them are good. I think that they’re doing some smart things in the process. Including providing a service for helping people 3D print out of production parts that they need for products they have. That’s a big part of it. You don’t see that on their website because that’s a walk in the store type of thing and they’re only doing it in that Chelsea, Manhattan store. If they roll that out to a lot more stores out in all over America, then I think that that whole market has an opportunity.
If you guys have any thoughts about brick and mortar 3D print retail, we’d love to hear from you anywhere on social media @3DStartPoint or of course on the blog post at 3DStartPoint.com. Hope you enjoyed that interview. We’ll be back with another one next week. Of course, we’re here every day with a new episode.
- John Hauer’s Articles
- Walmart could own the retail 3D print business by 2020
John Hauer is the Founder and CEO of Get3DSmart, a consulting practice which helps large companies understand and capitalize on opportunities with 3D printing. Prior to that, John co-Founded and served as the CEO of 3DLT. The company worked with retailers and their suppliers, helping them sell 3D printable products, online and in-store.
Prior to 3D printing, John spent 25 years in the 2D printing business, working for Xerox (twice!) and several large commercial printing companies. He helped the industry “go digital” by developing web-to-print software and other workflow solutions that transformed the industry.
John’s original content has been featured on TechCrunch, QZ.com, Techfaster.com, 3DPrint.com and Inside3DP.com, among others. Follow him on Twitter at @Get3DJohn
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