The Growing Significance of 3D Printing & Big Data in the Retail Sector

In 2019, the 3D printing market was valued at USD 13.7 billion, and in 2025, it is expected to be valued at USD 63.46 billion, growing at a CAGR of 29.48%. [1]   

Reports suggest that systems manufacturers make up a major part of the additive manufacturing (AM) market, at 38%. Aerospace, medical, automotive and industrial goods industries are the other major competitors that are also contributing to the industrialization of 3D printing. [2]

There is yet another industry where 3D printing is seeing increasing adoption: retail. From home decor being 3D printed and customized, to sneaker soles personalized to the customer's foot and gait with AM, to custom-made outfits, furniture parts and more, 3D printing is truly radicalizing retailing as we know it.

In fact, footwear AM is estimated by studies to be a $5.9B revenue opportunity - just in 2019, “footwear 3D printing revenues made up approximately 0.3% of global footwear market revenues.” [3]

In hindsight, this technique that has been around for over 40 years now and has grown immensely from its initial capabilities. Before we delve into its burgeoning in retail, let us take a closer look at the evolution of this technology.

The Use of 3D Printing in Retail

3D printing is helping retailers mass manufacture products from a variety of raw materials, personalized to individual requirements, truly adding value and efficiency to manufacturing capacities. Reflecting on the supply chain and manufacturing flux created in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, 3D printing could very well be the solution to guard against future risk events, thanks to the reduced manufacturing time and the numerous capabilities for mass customization, without steep hikes in accompanying costs.

Additionally, with the help of data driven forecasting, retailers can leverage AM to align with market demand, and thereby, optimize inventory by producing in accurate quantities, reducing the occurrence of overstocking/stock outs. Product designs can be simulated with AI. After extensive evaluation where the product’s appeal, utility, aesthetics, markup, customer perception, etc., is analyzed, the design can be finalized. This evaluation could either be entirely AI-enabled and automated or semi-automated. After due analysis, the shortlisted designs can be adeptly printed to determine the most suited prototypes. These would be presented as options to the customer and tweaked based on feedback, thereby, facilitating multi-step data-driven decision making. 

This way retailers can quickly align to market change and minimize revenue loss due to stock misappropriation. 3D printing can bolster R&D efforts and ensure judicious use of time and resources. Furthermore, the reduced costs of drawing up a product prototype reduces the likelihood of market failure and really allows retailers to finetune a product before selling it in the market.

Enabling New-age Retail Manufacturing with 3D Printing & Big Data

3D printing combined with big data creates new manufacturing capabilities for retailers with regard to being customer-centric. As retailers gain access to more data about their consumers and can better understand their consumers’ purchasing patterns, they have enough data to simulate personalized product offers and promos to their customers. 3D printing can help take this personalization one step further by enabling it in the manufacturing stage.

AM can custom-create the product to exact customer specifications, tweak few product features at no added manufacturing cost. This can includes essentials like medical masks, PPE kits, nasopharyngeal swabs, where 3D printing facilitates rapid process development, speeding up manufacturing processes and bridging the gap between demand and supply, in tandem with market fluctuations. AM has even been used in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, to print out emergency dwellings for those affected by the virus in such a way that the residences could be transported to remote locations too.

Additionally, 3D printing also helps manipulate and experiment with the size and shape of the goods sold, and their eventual form of packaging. For instance, by leveraging 3D technology, a team of researchers created flat pasta using gelatin. Given that gelatin expands when in water, the research helps reduce the size of packing, enabling the retailers to be less wasteful. [4]

Analytics-fueled AM also proves extensively useful in predictive maintenance. Retail products that are prone to risk such as tools used for medicine, or a certain type of furniture/jewelry, require to pass certain safety measures, and even the smallest error can prove to be a calamity. Big data can go a long way in helping reduce the possibility of mishaps by setting up AI & ML-powered detailed quality checks that automate these processes to prevent oversight.

Furthermore, setting up AI sensors in the manufacturing process can also help firms reduce the possibility of fabricating defective products, by accurately identifying faults during production. This improves the overall quality of products sold, gives firms the opportunity to dabble with multiple kinds of raw materials/ alternatives to determine which one best suits their endeavor. This also helps ensure that the machinery used in the manufacturing processes can be maintained in optimal form, and quality depreciation can be addressed proactively instead of reactively.

Companies can also look at employing AM for specific functions or steps in the manufacturing process instead of altogether replacing it. This might include replacing traditional printing systems with 3D printing simulations for a few products or even just parts of products. By using AI and ML, areas that need more manufacturing efficiency and resilience can be identified as best suited to try out an AM alternative.

One example of this is the combination of 3D printing with metal casting. Traditional methods of casting are useful for large parts being created, but smaller, more intricate parts are difficult to be metal-casted on a large scale. This is where 3D printing can create immense value-add. 3D printing can be utilized to printed smaller, intricate parts, or even just to add in a customized feature. For example, in a fantasy movie’s merchandise, like that of Harry Potter or Star Wars, iconic gadgets or tools associated with the franchise, like wands or lightsabers, can be customized with embossed initials of the customer. Even day to day utensils, like a lunchbox can be custom-embossed with the customer’s chosen image or design by using 3D printing just for the lids.

This way, conventional methods can be fused with AM, to ensure swift results, enhanced production process, while still ensuring customization for the consumer.

Mitigating Supply Chain Disruption with Digital Cross-Collaboration

3D printing helps simplify manufacturing processes and creates the opportunity for multiple stakeholder collaborations. By setting up digital platforms, retailers, designers, manufacturers, movers etc., can, sans geographical constraints, share their inputs, quality check and speed up the production process. The platform can also enable ease in design sharing and cut down time taken to align with latest market trends/changes, thereby minimizing supply chain disruption. This optimizes the operational capacity and proves especially handy for retailers looking to swiftly create essentials during a pandemic, or fashion customized products during the holiday season, or even to quickly create more stock for products that see an unusual spike in buying. When enabling personalization for consumers, this also helps easily determine the stage at which customization can be made possible.

The data created in these collaborations proves vital for future AI & ML applications to create market simulations mapping the latest trend in the market and the retailers’ capabilities to comply with the same, by cross-referencing pertinent historical data. Therefore, from being a platform that enables design generation, it can even grow to a platform that facilitates ease in commanding and controlling supply chain operations.

3D printing in Retail Advertising

Enhancing manufacturing processes is the most predominant use of 3D printing, but there are other ancillary activities that the 3D printing can enrich for retail, such as advertising.

Instead of setting up conventional image or video marketing, retailers can create miniature or large-size models of their products to help customers interact with or get to understand the product better. At storefronts too, it can ramp up the display, creating a quirky element and a potential advertising experimentation. For instance, in Israel, a leading beverage brand wished to launch mini bottle versions of a fizzy drink for which it offered few lucky customers the opportunity to visit their factory and access their 3D machine to print out mini versions of themselves. [5]

Therefore, by analyzing data about different products sold, stores with most footfalls, etc., retailers can advertise their products in a unique manner using 3D printing.

What does the future hold in store for 3D printing in Retail?

From toys to fashion and footwear, and more, latest innovations by multiple brands, across the globe shows that 3D printing is one technology that is bound to define the near future in the retailing industry. Understandably, the benefits to this technique are multifarious, and the pandemic disruption caused in 2020, highlighted the need to have streamlined, smooth retailing operations in place.

However, there are certain challenges that retailers must grapple with to derive optimum ROI from their 3D printing setups.

One of the major challenges is counterfeiting. As 3D printing gets more accessible and affordable, brands are likely to find it challenging to ensure that fake replicas of their products are not sold by miscreants in the market. Retailers need to look at setting up measures like chip insertion in genuine products to create distinction from dupes. AI systems can also be setup to detect design similarities and flag off products whose designs are potentially plagiarized or counterfeited – thereby streamlining initial innovation processes to ensure that the products aren’t deemed counterfeit.

There is also the threat of dangerous object like firearms, drugs, etc., being printed without regulation. There need to be stricter laws to regulate the people who have access to the technology to prevent eventual misuse of resources. With AI&ML models governing the AM processes, this regulation becomes easier. Automated alerts can be issued anytime that a new design is updated onto the 3D printing device, enabling retailers to keep nefarious activities at bay. The tracking of designs also helps identify areas of improvement, enabling supply chain streamlining and product quality assurance. For individual 3D printing devices sold, permission systems can be setup where customers need to digitally upload designs before printing, and companies can alert security officials when they spot an illegal prototype design request, such as firearms.

Despite the challenges, AM continues to transform traditional ways of working, enabling operational efficiency, and firms that do not plan for implementing the technology in their manufacturing process, might lose out on a critical competitive advantage. Consider this – in the last decade, most stakeholders in the U.S. hearing aid industry converted to 100% additive manufacturing in less than 500 days. According to one industry CEO, “not one company that stuck to traditional manufacturing methods survived. ” [6]

As exemplified, the opportunities to innovate with AM are truly multifold and the latest AI and ML technologies are only bolstering its existing capabilities, improving product longevity, quality and customer engagement. Retailers that improve their existing ways of working with the help of AM stand to gain a competitive edge and an improved capability for supply chain resilience and sustenance.  


Manikandan Palaniappan