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.