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3D printing might have been around for a while, making the odd fully functioning prosthetic limb from time to time, or printing a ratchet wrench in space for NASA, but its broader commercial potential is still relatively new. That said – and this is true with most emerging technologies – the speed with which it is now entering the market is impressive.

The big headline-grabbing projects, like a 3D printed unmanned aircraft (made in half the time and with a fraction of the weight compared to the usual manufacturing process) and a 3D printed city car will always be at the forefront of the big, lifestyle changing engineering agenda.

A 3D printed city car will always be at the forefront of the engineering agenda.

But here at SO, we’re much more interested in the potential, or potential danger, that 3D printing has for the world of luxury and aspirational brands. To start with, the origins of nearly all brands in this category lie in several simple truths, whether they’re in the product or service sector. These are:

 

We’re generalising but broadly, most of these apply to modern day luxury brands. And it’s thanks – at least in part – to these four points that they benefit from the considerable premiums that customers are willing to pay for them. So 3D printers, with their ability to produce identical items in their tens of thousands and at a fraction of the cost, look, certainly at first glance, to be a significant threat to at least three of the four points above.

Consider the jewellery industry. The thousands and thousands of hours that a master ring-maker goes through to learn, refine and hone her technique could now be cancelled out by a talented visual designer with a state-of-the-art 3D printer. Yes, that’s’ right, they can now print in gold. Not a liquid photopolymer base coated in gold leaf, but actual 18 carat gold.

Of course, all the designing and planning requires significant skill, but in terms of the actual craftsmanship, the printer can do in a few hours what one person or a team of people would need days or weeks to finish. Production and lead times to market are there to be slashed.

Fashion and jewellery appear to be at most risk here, because the products are relatively small (and easier and quicker to print than, say, a Learjet… for now) and demand is consistently high. Whilst the fashion industry is used to rising above cheaper knock-offs and copycat brands, it is used to doing so on the grounds of quality. A fake Chanel belt with ‘CHANNEL’ emblazoned across it is an easy fight to win, compared to a fake Chanel belt that looks identical, indeed effectively might be identical, to an actual Chanel belt.

But whilst this means the nature of copycatting might be changing, it also means opportunities are emerging too. In this excellent piece, Elizabeth Canon highlights the potential that customisation has for established brands. In the near future, should a customer want something in a slightly different shape or colour than what’s on the shop floor, this suddenly becomes possible with 3D printers offering, for the first time, a cost-effective solution.

The food industry is also on the alert, with 3D printers already printing impressively complicated chocolate concoctions. The future seems to be fairly limitless here, with talk of food cartridges licensed by Michelin star chefs and/or celebrity dieticians, printing exact replica restaurant meals in our own kitchens!

Whichever way you look at it, 3D printing looks set to further democratise the world of luxury brands. The key to successfully embracing this change will probably lie in the emergence (and recruitment) of a new, non-category traditional tech and engineering workforce (perhaps not dissimilar to social media’s labour market disruption) and an understanding of how consumers will want to be a part of the 3D printing age.

Forecasters predict that mass, home 3D printing is coming soon, it’s just a matter of which printer manufacturer gets there first, so perhaps there’s even a role for licensed home printing. Like that broach on Pinterest? Well what if you could buy the official brand-licensed 3D design file for a 1/3 of the physical copy and print it at home yourself? Sounds all a bit futuristic we know, but it actually might not be that far away.

Finally, of course, there’ll always be a role for marketing to play too. A compelling brand story continues to be one of the most powerful tools to inspire purchase and higher-category loyalty, when compared to a cheaper, albeit similar model. That’s why different people pay different money for an Audi Q3 SUV compared to a Skoda Yeti, even though they’re made in the same Slovakian factory with almost identical specifications!

As with all new tech developments, the brands that manage to pull 3D printing into their commercial activities have the potential to flourish. Those that don’t might just be printed into the history books.