Opinion: 3D printing

3D printing is no longer a technology of the future – it’s here! Edwin Stokes, director of Fluxaxis, discusses the advances made in 3D printing that allow retailers to cost effectively design and decorate their stores with a practically infinite variety of rich, complex forms; from the miniscule right through to the giant.

Rapid technological advances in the last decade have changed the retail industry almost beyond recognition. Just consider the growth of e-commerce and explosion of retailer apps. But, with Amazon now gunning for a piece of the in-store shopping market, bricks and mortar retailers need to work even harder to deliver an exciting customer experience. This is where 3D printing comes into its own.

Retailers of all sizes can now create unique, complex structures at a fraction of the cost of traditional manufacturing methods, opening up a world of creative opportunities. Most people immediately think about enormous versions of products to catch consumers’ eyes and get them through the door but the opportunities are practically limitless. So, forget the obvious – let’s explore what else 3D printers can do.

Conceptual consistency
Excitingly, 3D print has levelled the playing field. There are obviously deals to be done on big orders, but the set-up costs are the same to print 5 units or 5000. While this might sound counterintuitive, we love it because it gives boutiques and independent retailers the same creative opportunities as large chain stores.

This means that any retailer can create unique forms that not only compliment their stock, but actually advance their brand narrative. Plus, if you do have stores across the country, the speed, flexibility and low cost of digital manufacturing means that you can test in one store and, if successful, quickly roll out nationwide.

It’s important to remember, though, that stores need to be functional. While every merchant would like to throw out the rule book on in-store design, there are obvious challenges. You need mundane items like shelving, shoe racks or clothing rails in order to showcase products, and cost can stand in the way of creativity.

3D printing can bring those mundane items to life – and enables the creation of an immersive retail experience for the customer.

Say you run a shoe store. You could have standard shopfittings, designed to avoid detracting from the shoes and boots for sale but not to add any value. Or, you could design every single piece of furniture in your shop yourself. Create a chandelier made of sandals; a till point disguised as a trainer; or a sofa in the shape of a ‘flatform’. Or maybe you sell beauty products, and your USP is the use of ethically sourced honey. No problem! Let’s print some bespoke honeycomb shelving to perfectly fit into the nooks and crannies of your store.

In short, everything your customers see when they walk through the door can be creative and unique, but also representative of your brand. Cost is not necessarily a factor standing in the way anymore, just your imagination!

Enabling reactivity
Traditional manufacturing can be slow. Let’s take items like mannequins, for example. The development and creation of the required moulds can be a time-consuming process. With the growth and many successes of reactive marketing in recent years, retailers have often been limited by manufacturing processes and unable to get in on the action before the story is old news.

3D printing requires no such moulds, allowing greater reactivity and variation at no extra cost. Sticking with mannequins, how might a retailer utilise this? Well, they could commission 500 mannequins in completely different poses for the same price as 500 identical ones – allowing for regional tailoring. Something I would have loved to see back in 2012 would have been mannequins based on local Olympic and Paralympic heroes in the full range of shapes and sizes. People hitting the headlines in your region could be immortalised in your shop faster, and for a much lower cost, than you probably think.

So, 3D print opens up a whole range of opportunities for retailers, far more than we have time to discuss here. Manufacturing is now unrestricted by size, shape, complexity and speed, making it the perfect partner for the retail sector. The future will be printed. Don’t get left behind.

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