How 3D printing could transform Amazon and online shopping


Amazon’s new pilot program for 3D-printed products could end up revolutionizing the way we think about online commerce. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

Amazon’s recent decision to create an e-commerce storefront for 3D-printed products could finally bring 3D printing to the mainstream, but not in the way you might think.

If you take a quick look at some of the nylon plastic products on offer via Amazon’s partner, 3DLT, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that the new pilot program is really just about an incremental e-commerce push at Amazon. In other words, Jeff Bezos now allows you to buy groovy new jewelry designs and quirky plastic toys made by 3D printers on Amazon.com rather than on a third-party site from Shapeways, Cubify or MakerBot. You’ll now be able to pick up a designer $18.86 plastic belt buckle and $28.26 designer iPhone 5 case at Amazon.com along with your books and lawn products and fashion items and have it all delivered via Amazon Prime.

But is that all there is to it?

Amazon, which opened a 3D Printer Store on its site to much acclaim in 2013, could be experimenting with a bigger concept: 3D printing is about changing the supply side of the retail business model as much as the demand side. In other words, 3D printing is not just about offering more and more consumer goods in more and more categories so that Amazon can make more and more money (although that is surely part of it). It could be that it’s about transforming the online retail model based on our changing notions of scarcity — scarcity of product as well as scarcity of shelf space – in the digital world.

In the current retail model, Internet retailers such as Amazon stockpile products, store them in a warehouse, and then deliver them once a customer orders them as quickly and cheaply as possible. Amazon has an edge over traditional retailers (i.e. mom-and-pop book stores) because it can offer more products with nearly unlimited shelf space, thereby driving down the price of its products for consumers. Instead of spending money on costly brick-and-mortar locations, Amazon can focus on increasing the efficiency of its warehouse operations in order to increase its margins on the sales of physical products.

In the new model, though, 3D printing could be used to deliver a just-in-time retail experience, in which Amazon wouldn’t need to maintain a network of warehouses around the country filled with products, and wouldn’t need to invest in drones to deliver those products. Theoretically, one day Amazon might just sell the design file for a product, and the consumer would print the design file at home with a 3D printer in the comfort of his or her living room. Presumably, these consumers would also be purchasing their 3D printers and 3D printer filament from Amazon’s 3D Printer Store.

Which is why Amazon’s new 3D printing pilot is so interesting. 3DLT, one of the five partners that Amazon has selected for the program, has hinted that the future is one in which users simply upload or download 3D design files and print them out with 3D printers. Everyday consumer products, in short, will eventually follow in the wake of plastic toys and plastic jewelry. In this radically new business model, Amazon would be selling the 3D design files and the 3D printers and the 3D printer filament, but wouldn’t be selling actual “products” as we currently think about them. The consumers would print the products, not buy the products.

That’s a big idea.

We’re still far away from that future in which products are sold as digital design files, of course. Today’s reality is that you buy a $1,000 3D printer expecting to print light bulbs and tires, and end up printing goo. It still takes exceptional expertise to create 3D design files, and even a fair amount of patience and skill to learn how to use 3D printers. Moreover, until there is a wider variety of materials for 3D printers at a reasonable price point, it’s going to be a nylon plastic future for consumers for some time. And that’s going to lead to new concerns that the future of 3D printing is just about printing lots and lots of plastic toys.

That being said, we’re already starting to see increasingly creative and innovative ways that 3D printing is being used these days. We are 3D printing parts for airplanes and cars. We are 3D printing houses. We are 3D printing human body replacement parts. From that perspective, it’s easy to see Amazon selling the design files for just about anything — both organic and inorganic — from an online storefront in the future. Just as Amazon transformed the retail shopping experience using the economies of scale made possible by the Internet, it may be able to use 3D printing to transform the retail shopping experience yet again.

Disclosure: Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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