3D Printing and Retail Part 3: Technological Context


3D Printing and Retail Part 3: Technological Context


This is part 3 of our series on the impacts of 3D printers on retailers. You can find part 1 and part 2 here.

When you were a child, you used to beg your mother to take you to gift shops. They were highly stimulating environment, full of curious gizmos and gadgets. You never knew exactly what you’d find at a gift shop, but you always knew it’d be interesting.

But that was the gift shop experience of 30 years ago. Today, shopping at these stores is very different experience. When you enter the store, there’s no products on the shelf, or even shelves at all. The store is entirely barren, except for a few minimalistic tables and chairs. There’s a sleek white counter, behind which stands two fashionable yet very bored employees. The room is tastefully backlit in white and teals.

You walk towards one of the walls, which displays a welcome screen and cheerfully greets you by name. The wall panel is integrated with the shops’s automated retail system, or ARS. It plays the first seconds of an advertisement as you obsessively mash the “Skip this ad” button.

In the background, the ARS is querying your social media accounts, search engine history, and recent credit card transactions. The machine then runs similar analysis on your friends and family.

With a complex algorithm, the ARS uses this data to calculate exactly what your current wants, needs, and desires are. It then cross-references your budget, and voila! The ARS has found the exact product you need, no matter what that might be.

Today, it’s a vibrating back massager.

Once you’ve confirmed that the ARS has guessed correctly (and it almost always does), it instructs you to turn around, and quickly scans the contour of your lower back.

“Uh oh, there was an error. Let’s try again!” the ARS chimes. Its upbeat tone of voice makes it sound as if the error was a good thing.

You spin around for a second scan. Another error.

“Please contact Brandon, your friendly customer service associate for assistance,” the ARS helpfully offers.

Brandon looks up from his phone, astonished to hear his name called. He walks over in a daze and exclaims that “this is the first time I’ve gotten to do something all week! How exciting! What’d you break?”

It was a Thursday.

He quickly resolves the issue, and repeats the scan. This time, it works. Brandon rushes to the backroom, and emerges a few seconds later with a custom back massager, sculpted to fit the exact curvature of your back. There’s no need to meet him at the cash register, nor is there even a cash register at all — the ARS has already deducted the funds from your account. $4.23. Not too bad, for a custom back massager.

What’s really exciting about 3D printing technology is that it isn’t being developed inside of a vacuum. Instead, it’s rising alongside many other new technologies, technologies that will shape the way we interact and think about 3D printers.

For example, consider machine learning. We’ve already seen how frighteningly accurate neural networks can be — think of the horror stories of Google’s search algorithms predicting a pregnancy even before the woman herself knows, based only on her search history.

Neural networks are already very close to knowing us better than we know ourselves. Currently, data collection companies like Facebook and Google are leading the development of advanced neural networks. These companies attract users with their data-driven algorithms, but it’s actually the collection and distribution of that data where they make their money.

The data trade is likely to grow exponentially as older business models die out. It’s an easy way to offer free services to consumers while still making copious amounts of money. As demand for free services rises, the data trade becomes an increasingly attractive option in industries where the legacy business model no longer makes any money. Examples of this might be news organizations, movie theaters, and music streaming platforms.

It’s not unreasonable to think that soon, just about every scrap of data that describes your life will be available for sale, including your search engine and financial histories. When grappling with how to integrate 3D printers into their businesses, retailers would be wise to snatch up as much consumer data as they possibly can. Feeding this data into a neural network is currently the most straightforward path to meeting the high demands for customization that consumers will have.

Autonomous delivery is another concurrent technology that’s likely to impact the rise of 3D printers. After all, if a drone can deliver any online purchase in a matter of minutes, why is there any incentive to bother with printers? Why even leave your house at all?

To survive, retailers will need to shift to an experience-based system. They’ll need to make a visit to the store a pleasant experience — something you might want to do even if you weren’t buying a product.

Much of this comes down to presentation and design. Think of the Apple Store in your local mall: it’s clean, built to encourage exploration, and always totally packed with customers. Most of those customers aren’t planning on making any purchases that day, but they came to the Apple Store all the same. Why? Because it’s a fun and exciting experience.

In the future, retailers will need to perfect presentation and design. But, they’ll have a slew of new technological tools to help with this. Again, utilizing a neural network will be important. Imagine if, upon entering a store, it began to play your favorite song, displayed some of your favorite artwork, or smelled like your favorite scent. The only products on display are those specifically curated to your tastes. Even if you weren’t planning on buying anything, you’d probably want to stop by that store if you were in the area.

3D printing will have many impacts on society, especially when it comes to the retail experience. It’s likely to encourage societal trends we’re already seeing, such as increased demand for automation and customization. While it’s still too early to predict exactly how the 3D printing industry will develop, one thing is for certain: shopping will never be the same again.




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