The first working 3D printer was invented in 1986, yet the technology has only just begun to capture widespread imagination. Since the beginning of the 21st century, 3D printing has become much more prevalent, with sales growing and prices dropping. In September, MakerBot introduced its desktop 3D scanner, allowing users to scan objects to be digitally replicated and then printed at home. According to a recent report by Gartner, "Spending on 3D printers is predicted to hit $412 million this year, up 43 percent from spending $288 million in 2012." And, in early October, a husband and wife team opened Honeybee 3D, a 3D print shop and digital fabrication store that offers 3D printing classes.
3D printing: Friend or foe?
What many have called the "democratization" of 3D printing has created speculation that it may "spell the end of brands." As more and more consumers manufacture products "on their own," the need for companies traditionally in charge of production declines. But what this notion fails to take into account is the power of "brand essence," as Nokia Europe's head of digital marketing and advocacy Tom Messett explains: "When you buy into a brand, you are buying into more than just a physical object. You are buying into [the brand] that stands behind [the object]."
But this does not mean that brands can sit complacently by and reap the benefits of positive brand association. In order to capitalize on the self-as-manufacturer buzz, companies should embrace 3D printing to become leaders of quality and craftsmanship within this industry.
This is extremely important for brands wanting to engage with and tap the spending power of Millennials -- a generation of hyper-connected, well-informed individuals that defy over-generalized labels (like "Millennials") and laugh at marketers attempting to classify them according to "reliable traits." Quite simply, because many are hyper-connected and well informed, their loyalty sways with the unpredictable currents of peer influence and information exposure. Consequently, in order to maintain loyalty among the largest generation in U.S. history, marketing has to drastically change -- and, fortunately, it is. It's no longer "marketing at the consumer" but rather "collaborating with the individual."
This is taking clear shape in 3D printing, which allows brands to involve potential loyalists in the production process, therefore bridging the gap between consumer and company. What consumer wouldn't prefer a personalized product they helped create with a brand over an offering targeted at their generation? Moreover, which product would they be entirely more likely to share with their throng of social connections?
It's clear that 3D printing can spell big opportunity for brands. Here's a look at four companies that realize this potential by experimenting with the new technology.
Let's start with a giant. Disney is the largest media conglomerate in the world. It's lucky enough to collaborate with academic institutions like Carnegie Mellon University as part of Disney Research -- the company's research and development division. So, the fact that it makes this list is no surprise. But what sets Disney apart is its long-standing commitment to and future investment in 3D printing. The company has been experimenting with the technology for years and plans to move forward at full steam. According to Andy Bird, the chairman of Walt Disney International, "I think every home within 10 years -- probably less than that -- will have its own 3D printer, just as many homes now have a 2D or laser printer."
More than a year ago, Disney introduced its "D-Tech Me" experience. Using 3D scanners and printers, the company recreated the famous carbon freezing scene from "The Empire Strikes Back" by putting the likenesses of visitors onto Han Solo's body frozen in carbonite. Based on this success, during the summer of 2013, Disney created custom Stormtrooper figurines featuring fan faces. After 10 minutes with a 3D scanner, a 7.5 inch Stormtrooper replica was printed and sent to customers' homes. Sure, the $99.95 price tag seems steep, but it's a small sacrifice for serious fanatics.
But personalized figurines are only the beginning. Hop on over to Disney Research's website for a look at the future. Take, for instance, the company's foray into mechanical toys, where researchers have developed software that allows consumers to create and 3D print their own toys. Or check out Disney's "Papillon," a technology for 3D printing expressive, animated eyes on interactive characters, as displayed in the following video:
According to the brand of Scotch whisky, emerging technology and nature do mix. The brand recently enlisted a swarm of 80,000 honey bees to 3D print a bottle of whisky as part of its "3B Printing Project." Sounds crazy, right? But the craziness was so skillfully executed by Dewar's, the Sid Lee creative group, and New York ad agency The Ebeling Group that the effort deserves a spot on this list.
Here are the details: A transparent whisky bottle was created. Within the bottle, a starter blueprint of the bottle that mimicked a bee's natural environment (allowing for the collection of nectar and pollen) was placed as a template on which the insects could produce wax. Essentially, an inside-out beehive was created. The result was a "3D printed" bottle made entirely of honeycomb. Check out the following clip from the Dewar's Highlander Honey documentary:
According to Fast Company, the process took about six weeks and required two populations of bees. In addition, the Humane Society supervised the shoot to ensure the bees' safety. The campaign was launched with a 60 second trailer introducing the new whisky and the "3B" process. The entire event was broadcasted on Dewar's Facebook page as the "Live in the Hive" webstream.
Although this isn't a clear-cut example of 3D printing, it demonstrates the powerful influence and possible offshoots of 3D printing for branding efforts.
Let's face it: We love ourselves. A sense of self-importance is not rare in today's world of over-sharing. When you saw Dwight Schrute receive his bobblehead on NBC's "The Office," you had to contain the envy -- admit it.
But healthy levels of self-love can present golden opportunities for marketers. Take, for instance, Coca-Cola's recent venture into 3D printing to promote its new mini-sized bottles in Israel. The beverage giant and lifestyle brand, working with the GefenTeam agency, allowed customers to create virtual replicas of themselves using a mobile app.
Those that took good care of their virtual selves by feeding and buying it clothing (remember Tamagotchi?) were invited to Coke's headquarters in Israel. There, using a 3D scanner and a high-resolution 3D printer, the company created "mini me" figurines made of colored sandstone. Check out the video below for a closer look:
Not only are the mini figurines relevant to the product being launched, but they are also directly in line with Coke's overarching marketing strategy to create personal relationships with its customers. According to an article in the company's digital magazine, "Coca-Cola is moving from promoting happiness to provoking it." And nothing makes us happier than ourselves...right?
It all started with Sticky, the Google-owned company's sprinter van covered in Velcro and chock-full of high-end 3D printing equipment and hackable smartphones. As part of its "MAKEwithMOTO" tour, the company hit the road, stopping 16 times across the country to host mini "make-a-thons." During these events, Motorola met with art, design, and engineering students, as well as other makers and hackers, and provided the tools needed to innovate. Participants created things like retractable in-device headphones and a "Wink Ball" -- computer vision technology that responds to emotions and facial expressions. Here's a look at the company's first "make-a-thon":
In addition, those at the events were able to create exclusive Moto X accessories using a 3D printer. According to the Motorola team, "We have designed a set of delightful co-creation experiences for Moto X owners to make personal, one-of-a-kind gifts to complement their custom Moto X and explore the capabilities afforded by state-of-the-art 3D printing." The company helped users build accessories like NFC-enabled dog tags, tessellation bracelets, and phone covers. The dog tags, for instance, according to AndroidSPIN, are small pendants printed in 3D with the topography of wherever users consider home. By using NFC technology, the tag can launch navigation to a user's address simply by touching it to their device.
All of this personalization points to two major developments for the company: the launch of its Moto X smartphone, a mobile device consumers custom-design, and the creation of Project Ara. The latter is described as a "free, open hardware platform for creating highly modular smartphones." Here's a sneak peek at designs for Project Ara's new modular cellphones:
According to Paul Eremenko of Motorola's advanced technology and projects team, "Our goal is to drive a more thoughtful, expressive, and open relationship between users, developers, and their phones. To give you the power to decide what your phone does, how it looks, where and what it's made of, how much it costs, and how long you'll keep it." For Motorola, working with innovators and the latest 3D printing technology led to an understanding of the importance of both open relationships with consumers and personalized products. It is this mentality that is allowing Motorola to break new ground in the competitive smartphone field.
Chris Anderson, the former editor-in-chief of Wired, once said that 3D printing "will be bigger than the web," but others warn about buying in to all the hype, pointing to legal hurdles, impracticality, difficulty of use, and high prices. The point of this article is not to convince you to jump on the 3D printing bandwagon but to highlight the importance of thinking about the role of 3D printing in your marketing mix. I think Andrew McAfee, a principal research scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, when asked if 3D printing would live up to its hype by The Wall Street Journal, said it best:
"I think [3D printing] will lead to a great deal of innovation because it puts powerful fabrication technologies in the hands of many people. You no longer need to have a milling machine or mold-making technology in order to make a part, and you don't need to meet any minimum order sizes. It's almost as cost-effective to print out one part as 100. Because of these changes in access and economics we're going to see a lot more prototyping, tinkering, experimentation, and other aspects of what MIT's Eric von Hippel calls 'lead-user innovation.'"
If 3D printing continues its rapid growth, marketers must learn to let go by handing over the reins to these "lead-users," and 3D printing is the perfect vehicle for this. Who knows more about what consumers want than consumers? And by giving creative consumers more control over brand creations, companies will find more relevant solutions to consumer needs while opening the floodgates for consumer innovation. If brands are able to provide the tools for their customers to innovate (like many of the brands listed above), they will be seen as partners in the innovation process and thus develop more personal relationships with their customers. Through the construction of one-of-a-kind products, 3D printing provides a unique opportunity to strengthen the link between consumer and brand.
At the moment, buyers of 3D printers are mainly makers and hobbyists, as opposed to your average consumer. According to Gartner, these makers and hobbyists will contribute to the creation of 3D printing "killer apps," which will drive sales in the future. As Pete Basiliere, research director at Gartner, said, "We expect that a compelling consumer application -- something that can only be created at home on a 3D printer -- will hit the scene by 2016." As a marketer, it's important to think about how your brand can become an integral part of the 3D printing process before it's left in the dust.
But please, always remember to 3D print with caution (Warning: NSFW language).
Kyle Montero is associate editor of iMedia Connection.
On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.
"3D printer" image via Digital Trends.