It’s a Three-Dimensional World
For retail brands looking to stand out in a sea of similar stores, 3D printing is a new frontier. It is a chance to take creativity to an entirely new place, transforming the experience a retail customer will have when he or she walks through the doors. The technology to create these conversation pieces is still in the early stages, but it is gaining speed as more printers and brand owners alike learn just what 3D printers are capable of.
“It is cutting edge,” says Tom Lawson, director of operations at EclipseCorp, based in Gahanna, Ohio. “And there are very few suppliers of grand-format 3D printing. We’re finding that we have retailers who see it and love it, and we can see the wheels turning as they start to look at samples and renderings because the opportunities are limitless. Smart retailers are making their stores an experience. They want to have something that piques your interest and allows you to interact. We see 3D as the next step in that ability to answer their requests.”
Helping brands stand out is really the ultimate reason wide-format printers are starting to look to 3D printing. In an increasingly competitive market, it is a way for printers to stand out as well, bringing something to the table that others can’t match. And because printers are now talking about pieces designed to be at the center of a display, rather than just background graphics, 3D printing allows them to become more valued and valuable partners, instead of just vendors.
“Whether it is a huge brand or a local one, they are looking for ways to differentiate themselves in the market,” says Kevin Sykes, president for North America at Massivit 3D. “The biggest opportunity I see to offer, especially with 3D, is to offer fresh ideas that will garner attention. Create something that the customer of those companies won’t see every day. That allows them to set themselves apart when calling on that same customer — they have elevated themselves.”
Bigger, Faster, Cheaper
The ability to create large, impressive displays that make retail customers stop and take notice isn’t new. Many brands have created pieces for their locations in the past, but the process was time-consuming and someone needed to sculpt and make each piece by hand. This kind of artistry also didn’t come cheap; 3D printing might not be inexpensive, but compared to analog methods, it brings the ability to be creative on a grand scale to a much wider audience.
“One-off pieces have a tendency to be at a price point geared more toward guys with a deeper budget,” Lawson notes, “but we’re going to see that shift as the technology gets more advanced and material costs get lower. It will be more affordable for all levels of retail.”
The payoff, however, is a big one. Lawson notes that his company is finding that a 3D piece in a retail environment has as much as four to five times the stopping power of other types of print. People, he says, are stopping to look at the piece, take pictures with it and post it on social media with hashtags. They make people want to spend time in the location and engage with the brand both on and offline.
Sykes has found the same thing, noting, “It is absolutely helping connect with the consumer. They can interact with the brands through these 3D elements, whether it’s as simple as taking a selfie, or the way it’s designed so they can touch and feel or some kind of interactive element.”
The impact of a 3D-printed piece goes beyond something to take selfies with, however. The more innovative brands and printers are starting to look for ways to build interactive elements into the piece itself. Sykes notes that things, such as games customers can play as part of the design is an interesting example, giving brands yet another way to connect with the consumer and create a meaningful relationship with them.
Making it Small
Big brands aren’t the only customers for 3D printing in the retail space, however. Another small, but growing, segment are the “makers” — small groups or even individuals who are looking to push 3D printing in ways even the manufacturers might not have considered. For the most part, this group is using smaller, homemade variations of 3D printers, which are far more cost-effective for the types of projects they are creating. But there is some opportunity for wide-format printers with the capabilities already in house.
“Retail 3D printing is really just starting to be seen in the marketplace in limited applications,” says Josh Hope, senior manager of 3D Printing & Engineering Projects at Mimaki USA. “The maker community was early to adopt 3D printing and has driven a lot of the FDM-based printer development and sales. At the upper end of the maker community is the ‘maker to market’ group, which looks to develop actual products to market and sell. This group tends to look for access to higher-end 3D printers, which drives the need for service bureau output. As the 3D printing technologies continue to develop (higher strength, more flexibility, more color, faster, etc.), the maker groups are looking for access to these new machines and technologies.”
He went on to point out that in this space, it is all about open access, rather than proprietary designs. This community tends to want to share projects and ideas and build on what others have come up with. Hope notes that for wide-format printers looking to cultivate this particular segment of the retail market, the best way to win the business is to engage with it.