We’ve got a really great guest today, someone who we had so much fun talking to. His name is Sterling Hawkins from AdvancingRetail.org. But really, that’s just the tip of the iceberg of who he is and what he’s about. He’s all about retail and innovation.
He was introduced to us by John Livesay, a good friend of ours who does pitching for startups and helps startups really refine their pitch and their story. He has a great podcast called The Successful Pitch. He had interviewed Sterling and thought we would get along great. He was absolutely right because I am excited that we can give you someone in retail, who’s been in retail for generations, who’s as excited about 3D printing as all of us are.
You don’t often find that. When you talk to most retailers about it, they are really not very well educated about 3D printing, skeptical that it’s real and isn’t that just used for little plastic things or isn’t that just used for prototypes, all the stuff we’ve all heard criticize over 3D printing. We’ve over the years just seen this potential that the retailers aren’t seeing, but Sterling sees it too.
What is great is, he’s the first person we’ve talked to on this podcast who really has that retail perspective first and sees the opportunities and understands not only the potential, but how 3D printing is eventually going to be adopted more, how you’re going to get more application of it. Let’s talk with Sterling Hawkins about closing the retail innovation gap with 3D printing.
Listen to the podcast here:
Closing The Retail Innovation Gap with 3D Printing with Sterling Hawkins of CART
Sterling, I’m so glad to get to talk to you again.
It’s really good to be with you guys.
You are an expert on innovation and retail. Let’s talk a little bit about your whole background leading up to that because that is unusual, and maybe at times a little bit of an oxymoron to think of innovation on retail. Retail seems brick and mortar, a little old. I know e-commerce isn’t but some of us think that. Talk about some of the genesis of how you got started.
It’s totally not my fault. I love to say it was by design and I very methodically took these steps, and it’s just not how it happened. I fell into the whole thing. Now, I look back and I was like, “Wow, that’s a cool path to take.” Where it started is, I’m actually a retailer. My family’s got a store in central New York. It’s a supermarket. I grew up there. I’m not just a retailer, I’m a fifth generation retailer. It was a way of life for me and my family. We weren’t home sitting around at Thanksgiving, turkey at table, eating and chatting. We were all at the store because it was the busiest times. People were like, “What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” I’m like, “I’m going to work.” That’s what we did.
It’s got this great legacy which actually was started by my great, great grandmother back in 1934 as a roadside produce stand. It’s been families working with the store for generations, and of course my family and generations of that involved. We had such a great relationship with our customers. Knowing who they were, suggesting products to them, making them custom productsI. If they’re looking for a special cake or a special kind of meat, we could find that for them. That was just how we did business. It’s on that foundation. It’s no surprise it’s actually my dad that started the first loyalty program in the US, at least in brick-and-mortar retail back in early 90s.
It’s brilliant from a marketing standpoint and from a customer relationship standpoint.
All of a sudden, we had illuminated a blind spot. Retail, my family’s store included, we’re all focused on the products because that’s what we can measure. All of a sudden with loyalty, there’s cards and these days there’s mobile apps and all these other tools to identify people, but really what it’s about is the customer information, and for the first time we could see what customers were doing. The half of the business that we couldn’t see, we could finally get some insight into.
That’s the thing about your great grandma when she started it in 1934, she knew who her customers were. That whole information was in her head. This was really just a way of seeing it on paper or in the computer in this sense.
Lots have happened at scale. It’s one thing when you got a produce stand and you got the same couple hundred customers. It’s something else entirely when you’re running a high volume supermarket or hundreds or thousands of stores. You need some insight on the data to make it work. I love the analogy because it’s just like it used to be, where the retailer knows the customers, their likes and their dislikes, and everything else. Just with technology these days, to let that happen at scale.
In the early 90s especially and still today, retailers aren’t just technology companies. They’ve been thrown in to the mix with all of this innovation, with the Amazon more recently and countless start-ups. In the early 90s, it was really no different. Retailers are good at merchandising things and they’re marketing things and what’s going to go on the front page of the ad flyer. I’m speaking really for all retail verticals, but especially supermarket because that’s the space that I’ve come from.
What we did this, what threw us into the whole retail innovation space, is we started bringing some of these technologies in-house. Starting with loyalty, and then getting into personalized marketing systems, and camera-based systems. These days really any modern retail buzzword, Internet of Things. We were just trying it out in our store and sharing it with friends. In these days, we’re looking at probably a thousand, 1,200 new companies coming into the retail market every year and these are all tech companies. We help traditional retailers like the Kroger and the Safeways and the Albertsons of the world understand how to engage with that innovation. Not so they can just do something new and cool, but so they can actually run a better business and serve their customers better.
That is so necessary but I also think it’s necessary the other way. This is an interesting viewpoint that we have that maybe you started to see as well as you’ve been working with your cart matchmaking, for lack of a better word to describe it, but it’s like innovation and retailer matchmaking. We have the same thing going on here, is that the tech companies at the same time don’t get retail. They don’t understand buyers. They don’t understand the process. They get frustrated by it because it’s also not as a fast as everything else they’ve been doing. There’s this lack of education from both directions.
We do play a little bit of a matchmaker but I see us as more of a translator, helping technology people speak retail and retail people speak technology because they’re entirely different worlds.
We talk about the language of 3D printing is not the language of product, and that’s always been the problem here. It’s the language of CAD but it’s not the language of product development. That’s a huge issue because you’re actually making a physical product at the end of the day.
To look at 3D printing especially and how it can transform retail is dramatic. What retail looks like today compared to what retail can look like with just 3D printing, not to mention all this other cool technology innovations coming, is dramatically different from anything we’ve ever seen before.
We’re super excited to witness the, I won’t say emergence of it because I guess it’s already emerged, but it’s really not integrated. The adaption of it over time, and how that is going to change retail.
I think there’s a couple of different ways to look at that. One of the things we consider a lot is where power is held in the supply chain. Often times, we forget retail has already changed a lot. Back in the early 1900s, there was no self-service retail. You would walk into a merchant, ask for flour, corn, and whatever other products you wanted. The merchant would go in the back room, get the products and bring them out to you, and then you pay for them and leave. That’s what retailing was. All of a sudden, somebody had this genius idea to say, “If we just let the customer in to the back room and get the stuff off the shelves themselves. It’s faster. It’s more efficient. We save on labor.” That’s how modern retailing was born.
It’s actually mind boggling I’m sure to a lot to realize, “Oh, it wasn’t always that way?” We have some young listeners that might not have some concept of that idea. There’s a lot of power shifts in the supply chain. I think that’s really an interesting thing. You shift the power in how it works within the store, but as it goes always through the chain. There’s a lot of cost effectiveness that has shifted a lot of that and that’s where we really see the potential for 3D printing and for some of the other emerging technologies. I’m glad to hear you as excited about it as we are because we don’t hear that excitement from most retailers in general.
It takes them some time to get up to speed with some of these innovations. To bring it full circle, what happened with the advent of modern retailing is radio is coming along, and TV, and all of a sudden brands like the Procter & Gambles of the world had a medium to reach customers at scale. They didn’t care where you bought the Procter & Gamble products necessarily as long as you bought them, and so they really held the power in the supply chain. That shifted really around the 90s with the advent of loyalty, and this is where Walmart really came on the scene with scale. All of a sudden, retailers had information that manufacturers didn’t have, like the customer information, customer loyalty, and they had a scale the size of which manufacturers had to pay attention to, then retailers had the power.
Now, it’s the customers. It’s customers being on platforms like Facebook and on different mobile apps. The retailer has to meet them on those platforms if they want to do business with them. I think that in 3D printing, I can imagine a day where some critical mass of people have a 3D printer. Manufacturers are maybe selling them some kinds of designs that they’re going to print on their own 3D printers. If retailer wants to do business with this people, they’ve got to be on that as a platform. That’s where things start to change.
We have a little twist on the view. It’s not radically different or anything. The idea that you would print it yourself, because we do that all the time, we actually think that that’s a flawed thinking. There is going to be a percentage of the market in general that will have a lot fun printing it and there’s a huge gap. We just talked about this pretty recently, that there’s this huge gap of places to buy great designs from. There’s nothing that exists that’s great product designs. Their file is a little bit different. On the other side of that though, there is this, “We want it on demand. We want it now. We want it delivered Prime Now.” There’s this speed and immediateness, “I don’t want to do it. I just want it done for me.” There’s a place for both. It doesn’t obsolete the retailer. It doesn’t obsolete distribution centers. It actually creates power to that last-mile delivery that Amazon is building so strongly right now. It actually gives them even more power in that if they can print within that last mile.
It also changes the user experience. That’s the other big opportunity, for a better customer experience than they’ve had, the Walmarts of the world where you have to buy the vanilla version of a product because it’s too risky to do anything other than white or black when you’re going out to 3600 stores. This is really where we see retail faltering right now, getting to what’s holding back retail from adoption and looking at this because there’s so much cost savings in the 3D print process. As you know as a retailer, the stuff you have in your shelf, it turning, having less stuff there and being able to sell more is very valuable. Carrying costs are high. These are all wasted inventory, especially in food, all of that is high.
If you can cut the cost there, and 3D printing can do that because you can go to a low to zero inventory model, there’s a tremendous cost savings, but yet they haven’t adopted it because there’s so many other things in their way of thinking about how to handle it. I think it’s because they’ve gotten so far away from being merchants. I’m curious to know your thoughts on that. I’m defining a merchant by someone who totally understands their product category, what’s valuable, what’s exciting, what customers might want to buy, and having a sense of the product side of things again.
I think it’s such an established industry and it’s so massive. If you look at just the retail consumer market in the US, that’s a $5 trillion business, globally $27 trillion, big numbers. There’s just massive, massive players in that market that are really driving most of the practices. In addition to being a little bit disconnected from customers, I do agree that that’s the case, I think in general, the retail industry has been more focused on iterative improvements versus real innovation. It’s always, “We’re going to make this a little bit better. We’re going to change this. We’re going to tweak this. We’re going to save a couple of bucks,” instead of saying, “Wow, we can change our entire structure. Our whole supply chain can be dramatically different.” It’s just not a view that a lot of retailers take.
You’re talking about in a sense coming back to brand and design value again which doesn’t exist. I don’t think a lot of people who haven’t gone over to Asia and sourced products before has an understanding of how out of touch they are from the US consumer and the design process. I’ve been to hundreds of meetings with buyers over the years where the buyers never even touch the product or sit on it sometimes. We were selling chairs and we couldn’t get the buyer to sit on it. I’m like, “Are you going to sell that? You don’t even know if it’s comfortable.” They’re not exploring the process of being a good merchant in that sense. You have this disconnect and the people that are designing it aren’t even in your country. They don’t have a sense of what a US consumer wants to buy in our case. They’ve deleted out the designer in the process because only the big, big brands have that.
The cool part especially now is if the traditional retailers don’t do that, if they don’t figure out how to get more in touch with their consumer and design things that the consumer really wants, new companies are going to come in and do it for them.
Because then they’re not necessary. You can hook up to distribution center, you can be the face to the customer, and you can own that relationship now because the power shift has happened in the supply chain.
It really points to something that we call the innovation gap in retail and that gap is opening. If you picture a graph and moving from left to right is time, retailers have an incrementally sloping additive line, up into the right. They’re making things a little bit better for every day, month, and year that goes by. Technology is growing at an exponential rate. It’s that proverbial hockey stick. It’s moving up into the right but really fast up. The space between those lines, between what retailers are currently delivering and what’s technologically possible, is where we’re seeing Amazon and thousands of startups start to take advantage of because the cost of entry to get into retailing today is literally nothing. In some cases, it’s free if you do it in e-commerce side. It’s just different than it was. If the big retailers don’t figure out how to serve their customers better and how they want to be served, someone is going to do it for them.
I’ve got a great analogy. Have you heard the story about the invention of chess? The story goes that it was invented in China. The emperor of China was bored. All the existing games, all the stuff there was to do, just wasn’t satisfying. He called in the local game merchant. He said to the merchant, “Make me a game from which I’ll never bore. I don’t want to get sick of what you invent for me.” The merchant goes away and toils over days, and weeks, and however long it is before he stumbles on it and he invents chess. He can’t wait and he runs over, and he sees the emperor, he teaches the emperor how to play, and emperor is thrilled. He loves this game. This was exactly what he was looking for. He says to the merchant, “How can I ever repay you for such a great game?”
The merchant thinks for a second. He says, “Let’s take the chess board. On the first square, let’s put one grain of rice. For every square thereafter, we’ll just double it.” The emperor says, “That’s great. That’s such a great deal. I’ll do that.” They shake hands, they agree, and they started adding it up because the emperor thought he had this great deal. The first half of the chess board was really uneventful. The amount of rice was like a large field full of rice, super reasonable. The second half of the chess board is where stuff got really interesting. Square after square, they’re adding it up. I didn’t do the math on this but it adds up to something like 18 million, trillion grains of rice. I have no idea how much rice that is. I looked it up and if you figure out ten grains of rice per square inch, that’s enough rice to cover the entire surface of the earth including the oceans twice. If you let that sink in for a second, that’s from one chess board starting with one grain of rice.
Humans just have a hard time understanding the exponential function. Technology is getting exponentially better right now and it’s human that’s really hard to understand how that impacts us. I think it was a University of Colorado professor that said, “One of the greatest shortcomings of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function,” and it’s totally true.
Especially when you can’t see it. You’re talking about grains of rice and eventually you would get the picture as you’re trying to enact that, that you can see it. But in technology, we really can’t see what is growing in exponential rate.
Processing power drives so much of this today. I think everybody conceptually knows, “Processing power is doubling over long periods of time” but what does that actually mean? If you apply that to this exponential model, right now I think it’s something like $1,000 computer will buy you the processing power of about a mouse brain. But in 2045, which is really not that far away, that same $1,000 will buy you the processing power of every human brain combined. There’ll be 9 billion people in 2045.
Thinking about it, even a mouse brain, I just think about it in our lifetime already, how much faster and how much more we’ve been able to do. We are big and early adopters of everything. We embrace that exponential rate even if we can’t see it. I think about that and at the end, it’s only a mouse brain. That seems crazy to me on top of it all. Now we see why this is so hard for retailers to embrace. They are stuck in an old world. When you get to that sign of scale especially a large retailer, just your ability to be flexible and shift. It’s turning the Titanic.
It’s asking different questions than what you’ll always have. I think the Blockbuster’s story is a good one. When they surveyed all their customers about when Netflix was coming out, the customers said, “I love coming into the stores. I love opening up the movie boxes, the serendipity around running into somebody I know in the store.” That was great information. They used that information and continued to roll out stores, and you look at what happened. Pressing one button in your underwear on the couch trumps all of that, you just didn’t ask the right questions.
They didn’t understand the cocooning trend that was really even enhanced more. Videotape allowed you to watch that at home instead of going to the theater, but Netflix made it even easier. No one could imagine that it was possible so it was hard to ask that question. That’s another thing. It sounded as a little too sci-fi at that moment, that it could actually happen, that it was that close, because they had so much blind spot to it.
I think it’s Steve Jobs that had a great quote about, “Customers don’t really know what they want until they see it,” and a lot of times that’s true. It’s up to us as retailers and as consumers to tell retailers what we might be looking for.
It’s mostly a listening thing. This is one of the things that we learned. People are always asking us, “How do you have so many inventions?” or “How do you do so many products so quickly?” We did 250 products in the last eight years. They’re like, “How do you do that? How do you do it that fast?” I was like, “That’s because all of the good information is right in front of your nose.” It’s in the complaints. It’s in the bad reviews. It’s in the things they’re not sharing. It’s all right there. They’re telling you, you just aren’t asking the right question and you’re not listening. I just have wrote an article pretty recently for my Inc. column about the perception gap that’s going on between brands and their customers. The brands were going out there and doing surveys of, “What do you think about your brand internally?” All the executives were rating their brand and what they think customers think of their brand and all of that stuff, and then they would go out there and they’d rank the consumers and rate this.
This of course is an independent agency but they work for the brand company. I’m asking them questions and saying, “This is really interesting. There’s a 30% differential negative between what the brand thinks of themselves and what the market think of themselves. This is a huge area to dive into and find lots of little opportunities to improve that process. Why aren’t they finding it?” The one question that I asked the researchers was, “Did you divvy it up by the demographic and what does that look like?” He shows me the demographic and I said, “Where’s the gender split? Are all of the executives, men or predominantly men? And all of your consumers predominantly women? Do you have a mismatch in your percentage?” When he went back and pulled the numbers, it was absolutely that. Not only were they surveying it wrong, they didn’t even have their demographics matched. You’re not asking the right question and you’re not asking the right people.
I don’t think anything surprises me in retail anymore. There’s not a good deal of understanding within most retailers of the questions to ask, or even how to respond to innovation that they see. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the app called Purple. It’s an app where you can have somebody come and fill up your car with gas no matter where it is. I always get, when talking about the app, three questions. The first is, how does that work if your car is locked? You just leave your gas tank open. The second question is, aren’t you worried about somebody stealing your gas? Have you ever worried about that?
Plus, it’s empty. That’s why you need it filled.
And then the third thing, and this points to what we’re talking about here is inevitably, ”Isn’t that lazy? Can’t you go for a gas for six minutes?” What is it about the user experience of going to a gas station that you are defending?
I need Purple for getting my car serviced because I’m 3,000 to 4,000 miles overdue for an oil change and I just am so busy in business. I don’t have the time of day to go take it to be done, and so really what I means is I need a better assistant to take it for me. There’s a great company in San Diego called Car Care that I just absolutely love the CEO of. He’s awesome. It’s a start-up so they are at early stage, but they’ve really done well in the San Diego area. Basically, they pick your car up right and they go have it serviced. They’ll fill it with gas, they’ll get it washed, and they’ll do whatever you want to do it.
His biggest problem was solved by innovation which I thought was so amazing. His biggest problem was that sometimes they spend too much time trying to search for the person to get their car keys. If you were in a meeting, which is why you would ask them to service your car, because you’re in meetings all day, you’re too busy, that just getting in to get the keys from you or that they’d forget to leave them at the front desk for you or whatever that was, was taking so long that it was hurting their pricing structure.
It got resolved by another company called Phrame. It’s a license plate frame that is hooked to an app in which you can unlock your car instantly. You can unlock your trunk and let Amazon put groceries in your trunk or bags of whatever boxes of whatever. You can have it delivered straight to your car, but you can also open the car and there’s a lock box behind the frame where you can get your keys. They could instantly, by that technology, sign up all the members, give them a license plate frame and now they have instant access to all of their members’ cars and they’re able to service them instantly. It cut so much time out of the process.
I’m starting to see some of these entrepreneurs coming out with and how they’re solving problem that we didn’t even realize we have. We’re just used to how packages get delivered or how we buy things or how we get food. We don’t usually stop and think, “If I can do that differently, how would I do it?” They’re starting to ask these questions now, which is really cool to see.
Aren’t the large retailers really not ever going to think creatively and innovatively about that? Mass market retail, Walmarts, Targets of the world, the people within the organizations which are huge organizations in order to be able to accomplish what they do on a daily basis, I understand why it happened, but really all those employees are most worried about risk mitigation. They’re really, “I can’t do worse than I did last year. I need to just do a little bit better because I’m climbing up that corporate ladder.” They don’t become merchants and buy in a category as a career. Buyers are just a short stop on the way somewhere else. They’re never going to take that jump. I think it’s always going to be the startups that shakes things up and maybe they’ll get bought. What do you think about that?
That’s why we’re seeing a lot of this big retail organizations start to acquire startups. Because not only are they looking for whatever that startup might be doing, but they’re looking for people that think with an innovation mind set, that’s one thing. The other thing that we’re starting to see a lot of and have for a number of years now is the brands, the retailers setting up venture investment arms so they can get involved with startups, where they can actually participate on the cap table as an investor to do two things. One, understand that innovation got some impact on the business. Two, in some ways more importantly, bring that startup feel, that innovation culture, the people that are asking different questions, to let that start to permeate their organizations. Not everybody is doing that but I would say that’s definitely one of the best practices to bring that in inside.
We’ve seen a little bit of it. Lowe’s had that innovation lab that they’ve been working on. They have that going on over there, which I think is fairly good. What I found the most refreshing when we talk to them about that was that they were really allowing it to be treated like a skunkwork which is really necessary. I always joke about this but it’s not a joke, it’s typical with the way that it happens, is that Walmart’s test of 3D printing was to put this cheapie 3D printed roses on the counters at the holiday time, or Mother’s Day or Valentine’s day. The bouquet of them and you could buy a 3D printed rose as you’re checking out for $20 or something. It was not even cheap. That was their test of 3D printing and it did not go very well. It’s like this half-hearted, “We don’t really want 3D printing to succeed so let’s make sure we have a case study that’s going to totally fail. Let’s pick the ugliest product possible and stick it there.” That happens all the time.
Lowe’s says, “We don’t have to in this innovation lab have to have that measurement.” We’re measuring something, we want to know something coming out of it. What kind of people are attracted to this? It’s not about doing dollars and volume. They didn’t have unreasonable measures on it, which is typically what you need in what I would call a skunkwork operations, something where you’re testing out innovation, and then they run a second test to test something else. I think that’s a really smart way to go about it. I have high hopes for them although I didn’t think that the products that they put out was incredibly attractive. Some of them were better than others but some of them weren’t. They weren’t great products and I think that that’s where it fell apart a little bit. I think because it’s extremely challenging. If you’re going to not invest in that and put the budget on the design side of things, you’re making a big, big mistake.
That’s what we’ve seen. There is actually a whole lot less than the failure of the side of having not good product on the other end. There’s very few designers in the process and how many products are exploding, or breaking, or damaging, or hurting people, and it’s actually because you’ve lost touch with that ergonomic product designer in that process. It doesn’t exist anymore. We do so little work for brands of the midsize anymore. The seasoned experienced engineer, regardless of where they’re from, would know that whatever technology was put on those hoverboards with the batteries was not the best technology. You could have done it right, but they did it cheaply having the factory, “They’ll engineer it. They know how to make these things better.” They pushed off the expertise on to people who actually don’t understand how people will use things, number one, what the use of something is, and understanding also the process of how it got spot, sold, transported, all of those things. You’ve lost that viewpoint that has happened.
II want to touch on food because you’re an expert in that. I have to say that from the day one of 3D printing, the area that I expect to tip first, the area that I’m the most bullish on is food 3D printing. It seems logical to me. It seems the perfect case study because I think of all these amazing relationships that you build. When you have a wedding, you build with your baker, with the person who’s going to make your beautiful cake. This is still a one on one relationship thing. Where can you add the most value? Where can you differentiate yourself from marketing your retail bakery standpoint, marketing your restaurant? It’s still a one on one relationship. It’s still one of the few places we have that direct relationship.
You bring 3D printing into your local bakery or maybe your wedding cake shop, all of a sudden what they can do with those frostings and those sugars. Easily 3D printable foods is really incredible. It changes the game of what’s possible when you’re sitting there at the wedding eating dessert. It’s a different looking cake that you probably paid more for.
I just think the relationship that it makes for you. You’re not just baking. You’re not just, “You have these flavors, and you’re good at it and your decorating skills.” It equalizes you from a decorating standpoint because you don’t have to be the most talented at creating sculptures on top of your cake. You can print them out. You can hire someone to design that for you and have your own custom designs. I just think that really makes main street retail more powerful again.
There’s companies out there really focused on that space. I think the one that comes to mind is 3D Systems Culinary Lab, where they’re taking that 3D printing and specifically giving it to local restaurants and bakeries, to give them access to something that really differentiates them.
One of my favorite things that I saw that they had done was their deconstructed French onion soup. The crouton was all 3D printed, the cheese is all 3D printed. How brilliant, because it’s now not only is it beautiful but then they pour the hot soup over it and it melts in front of you. It’s an event. It’s an experience. The other one that we love here is BeeHex, the pizza guys. Their model of going through the commercial food channel, they get how you get into a restaurant. They haven’t tried to end run around it and go straight to homes. They said, “No, the best use of this is to go commercial. We’re going to make this a commercial grade machine so that it can be FDA approved, it can be rated, and it can go into a commercial kitchen.” I love that idea. I think that makes a lot of sense.
My favorite part about those guys is that I think they were originally funded by NASA to feed astronauts on their way to Mars, and now you’re making pizza for all of us? It’s the greatest thing.
Those guys are super smart. Everything that they’ve done has been so methodical and such NASA engineers about it, including their marketing. That’s where they really stepped themselves up from the technology pack. They have great balance between their technology and innovation, which is next to none, and going at it from the marketing and understanding that sales model that they need to have and they’ve innovated through that whole process. I have high hopes for them as being the winners in that market area.
The other area we’re seeing 3D printing come in to food though is from a nutritional standpoint, adding special nutrients that consumers or particular consumers might need. There’s actually a hospital in The Netherlands were they did a study and they found some of their patients were malnourished. What they’re doing is that they’re testing now 3D printed foods where it’ll be a component of all of their patients’ meals to remedy some of that.
They’re engineering the food in a sense. It sounds similar to what we read about 3D printing certain pharmaceuticals and how you now have new opportunities to not only make the dosing very specific per patient and not have a one size fits all approach on that many pills, but also that there are other opportunities now for having those pills dissolve more quickly into your system. Because the structures are not just a solid pill but more of an open, more porous one that would dissolve faster because more liquid gets in the whole thing quicker. So many real innovations here that are brilliant and I think that there’s a similarity there with the food.
I do think we’re going to start seeing this more and more in food. Panda Express using 3D printing to test new cutlery and silverware and serving utensils. They’re not producing it in mass obviously, but they’re designing things, they’re printing them in their headquarters, and then they’re sending the files to China to mass produce them. That really improves their process, their cycle times and everything else.
We do that with our clients here actually. This is our growing area of our business where we test out different styles and designs and make sure they don’t have issues. We designed a pet product that’s supposed to go on pets, but we can only test so many dogs that are certain sizes and other things. If we can make it and send it out there, we can get a higher use case study and say, “If we made it just a little bit smaller, it fits better.” We were able to really dial that in and also dial it in from the sales standpoint, which one resonates the most so we can tool for the one that has the most likelihood for success, especially on a small budget for a start-up.
That’s definitely the way things are going. It’s starting to bring 3D printing to the top of minds of a lot of retailers, a lot of consumers of course out there to say, “We can start engaging with 3D printing,” in ways that makes sense today where you don’t have to overhaul your whole supply chains and say, “No longer we’re going to ship anything from China.” No. You can start by getting some of your prototypes developed with 3D printing, you dip your toe in the water, and then as the technology advances, and we know how quickly it’s going to advance, then you can start to broaden that.
Sterling, it has been an absolute pleasure talking with you and I am so glad that everyone else got to hear someone with a retail background excited about 3D printing.
It’s been a real pleasure being with you guys. Thank you for having me.
Closing The Retail Innovation Gap with 3D Printing – Final Thoughts
That was so much fun talking to Sterling and really hearing about his experience, his life and his perspective. I think it’s very well informed. I think this is what’s so interesting about it, if we hadn’t had all the experiences that we had had trying to build companies and get our products to market in conventional retail, if we hadn’t had all those experiences, maybe we wouldn’t have the viewpoint we have on 3D printing, maybe we would’ve just gone in like everybody else had gone, “We’ll be designers on Shapeways. It’ll be awesome,” and have gone through that model. Instead, we said, “No, we’re not doing it that way,” because we understood how the process works. We have a different viewpoint.
I think that’s really what I find so interesting about Sterling and what he’s trying to do with Advancing Retail Organization. I think that that’s great. It’s creating a connection. He has this thing, which we really didn’t touch on a lot, it’s called the CART Platform, Center for Advancing Retail & Technology. It’s looking at everything and finding it applicable. If you are a 3D print company, you can go and be listed there. If you have printers, if you have services that you provide. Remember, that this is serving retail and retailers, not the consumers. Be sure that that’s the model that you’re going after, that you want to be adopted by mass market retailers or large retail companies.
Think of it as a massive online directory for people that are looking to get visibility to their IT departments and their innovation adopted and maybe their CIOs, because they’re thinking about, “Should I adopt new eCommerce platforms?” If you look at the other softwares and the other technologies that they’re talking about, “Should we adopt a new CART style? Should we adopt a new eCommerce platform? Should we adopt a new loyalty program software? Should we put in different point of purchase displays that are more technologically savvy? Should we put in self-running checkout lines?” If you are a retailer who maybe was smaller and hadn’t yet adopted that level yet.
That’s the kind of technology that they’re presenting. They’re presenting a lot more than 3D printing, but 3D printing is one of the emerging technology areas they’ve included and probably because Sterling is so passionate about it. I’m sure that’s one of the main reasons why. It’s no cost to be listed. It is curated so they will check its applicability to retail. They’re going to vet your company or your product to make sure it’s legit and that it really does apply to their audience and it’s not irrelevant. If it works, this is a great directory for you to get seen by retail and by big brand companies. I think it’s a great idea if that’s the market and industry you are.
I’m just excited that he believes because he’d been in the industry for five generations. He sees this is the next evolution of retail and I am glad because we want this to happen. To me, it seems so much more consumer beneficial, it seems much more retailer focused in terms of bringing back a little bit of power to the retailer being a merchant again, being a curator of great design and innovation stuff. It makes distribution and cost and all these things that seems so unsustainable. Transportation cost and the high cost of delivery of things and shipping and pollution and all of those things, it resolves all of them if we can make this work.
I really enjoyed his example of the Panda Express model. I know that they were just using their experience with users in a store with some 3D printed prototypes of, he was saying there, utensils and then having that inform their development of new utensils and if they’re going to roll it out to their entire chain. To me, that’s a perfect use for them. But again, it’s a tip of the iceberg situation where I think I could see other retailers not only adopting 3D printing for product lines that are available at all their stores, but also to really test with their local markets, in different regions of the country, products in a way that they can afford to do. It doesn’t break the bank on inventory, stocking of so much products.
I think that because we have a different perspective, because we come from the design side of how hard it is to get a product placed at mass market retail, it is very hard at brick and mortar retail, it’s very slow. Those of you who are Amazon sellers, it is nothing. You guys work so fast compared to how it goes in getting into mass market retail. It’s like a snail, it’s so slow. But the process of it though, it’s amazing to me how much testing really needs to happen and doesn’t happen effectively along the way. In that amount of timeframe, you could’ve tested so many different things if you had adopted that 3D print to final product model.
The reality is that they just don’t have the capability of understanding that side, but I think that when you adopt that Panda Express model, what I think is going to be so interesting is that it becomes more normal to think about 3D printing in a process of testing something. If it becomes normal for your organization as a whole, why not have that cascade over into this other part of your company as well? I think it’s a good thing. It’s slow, but I think it’s a good thing to have adopted it in that. We’ll see how it goes, but I’m glad he’s excited too. It means we’re closer than we think we are actually.
If you have any comments or want to connect with us and have anything to say about how retail is advancing in 3D printing or how innovation gap is closing, please send us a message on social media @3DStartPoint. Thanks for listening, everybody. We’ll be back next time. This has been Tom and Tracy on the WTFFF 3D Printing Podcast.
- Inc. column about the perception gap
- Car Care
- 3D Systems Culinary Lab
- Panda Express
- CART Platform
About Sterling Hawkins
Sterling Hawkins is a business leader, entrepreneur and investor living at the intersection of in‐store and online. Currently running operations and venture relations for CART, his legacy is that of a 5th generation retailer whose family name is synonymous with retail. From that springboard, he has worked with clients on best practices in consumer marketing, loyalty and retail technology including Mitsubishi, M&M Meat Shop, Procter & Gamble and many others. Through CART, he has also partnered with universities including Stanford, Cornell and the University of Texas to incorporate the future of retail into their curricula and provider a go‐to‐market channel for relevant startups.
In 2004, Sterling co‐founded, launched and sold his first retail technology company, Convena. Since, we has been actively involved in the community speaking at business conferences around the world. He has been seen in ABC Money, Comstock, RetailWire and Forbes. Sterling lives in Los Angeles and spends his me mobilizing a network of startups, investors and retailers to bring together online and in‐store for the betterment of business, communities and the human condition.
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