In 2003, while the music industry was threatening and suing over digital downloading and file sharing, Apple quietly launched iTunes and forever revolutionized the way we consume music. Today the idea of buying 10 songs on a disc, only to get the one song you really like seems almost ridiculous. One short decade later, iTunes represents 29% of all music sold at retail (both digital and physical). Meanwhile, record stores like HMV are sinking into bankruptcy.
Now, another consumer revolution is waiting at the gates. And it’s the revolution of 3-D printing. The question is, who will own this moment in history? Who will lead this revolution and just as important, who will die trying to suppress it?
Only a few years ago, 3-D printers were far too expensive for the consumer market, but now it’s possible to buy one for under $2,000. Given the growing ease and affordability of this technology, it seems completely reasonable to expect that within the next decade, we (consumers) will routinely produce a percentage of the items that we need on a weekly basis, from the comfort of our homes. It will be commonplace to download 3-D product designs and print them locally, including toys, household items, art, decorative items, equipment, parts and hundreds of other common products.
Some analysts have argued that the problem with this imagined future lies in the high cost of the process and in particular the feed stock material used in it. A common item, say a plate, for example, would be on the order of 30 times more expensive to print than it would be to buy in a store. On the other hand, 3-D printer manufacturer MakerBot has offered examples of being able to print small items, like an iPhone case for example, that might cost upwards of $20.00 in a store, for only a few cents. We can also logically assume a steady drop in the cost of both 3-D printers and feed stock material as the technology is more widely adopted and as competition in the category grows.
So, consider the math from a retailer’s point of view. One item purchased and scanned could potentially end up being shared to hundreds or even thousands of consumers who then simply print an identical replica for which the retailer and manufacturer receive nothing. The economic impact on the brands that design and make such items could be staggering. Indeed 3-D printing has the potential to be a consumer revolution that will make the disruption caused by music sharing look like a walk in the park!
Which leads me to the question, how is the industry likely to react? In what will seem like deja vu, I fully expect manufacturers and retailers alike to terrorize consumers and to litigate the hell out of them. They will fight tooth and nail to protect the status quo – that being that manufacturers do the making, retailers handle the selling and consumers… well, consumers simply buy what’s made available to them. Brands will struggle in vain to defend their existing wholesale and retail business models. And they’ll fail to see that the horses are already out of the barn. There will be no going back once consumers have been empowered to produce what they want, when they want it.
But like Steve Jobs, my guess is that someone (perhaps Apple or Amazon) will emerge who recognizes the true opportunity that lies ahead. The opportunity to aggregate, curate and sell individual product designs at reasonable prices to consumers, who can simply and legally download them for in-home production. Like iTunes, they’ll envision a digital marketplace made up of tens of thousands of products across a multitude of categories. In other words, they won’t resist the trend, they’ll enable it and grow it.
And just like record labels and iTunes, brands and manufacturers will have the option of either playing along for a percentage of the action or continuing to fight over 100 percent of nothing. They’ll have little choice but to evolve their business model beyond simply selling finished products to retailers and begin licensing their product designs to consumers as well. And yes, it will completely and permanently alter their revenue streams.
There’s no escaping the emerging reality that we are entering a new era where the customer is no longer merely a consumer but a manufacturer in their own right.
Look for my book, The Retail Revival coming February 28, 2013
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(Via Retail Prophet)