Digital distribution, inexpensive 3D printing and consumer co- creation are the three trends that should be considered a great adjustment.

3D printing today is similar to the music industry in the early 1990s. The music industry at that time couldn’t foresee the disrupting impact of increasing internet connectivity and ongoing advancement in audio compression on its business some years later. This era is an emergence of a “crowd manufacturing cycle” which will lead to disruption of the conventional process of design, manufacture and distribution.  Businesses selling physical goods need to immediately consider ways to adjust to and mitigate the disruption that’s on their way.

3D printers use digital technology to make three dimensional objects through a process known as additive manufacturing process. A 3D printer places drops of ink or toner on the X axis and the Y axis just like a standard printer does, but it also adds the Z axis to create a solid object.

The most common process, among the various technological approaches, uses a layer by layer method to gradually create a real, 3D object from a digital template. 3D printing can help in producing personalised objects in a way that standard manufacturing procedures cannot. For instance, 3M’s Lava system produces hearing aids which are carefully tailored to every individual recipient’s ear canals. Since the 1980s, this 3D printing technology has been in effect for industrial prototyping, but it is becoming more popular due to its declining cost.

RepRap and MakerBot are the cheapest 3D printers that can be purchased for less than [euro] 800. These printers can be bought in parts and constructed by users. Although these printers are unreliable and rudimentary, they are inexpensive enough for customers who would like to experience 3D printing.

With 3D printing becoming within the reach of customers, the tools used for editing designs are also becoming simpler to use. TinkerCad is a tool that helps casual designers work on three dimensional items online, which means there isn’t any need to install software. These tools are helping consumers become co-creators by allowing consumers to innovate new object designs.

The design of these personalised items will become a continuous procedure of crowd manufacturing and remixing in which there isn’t any final cut. The crowd innovation of objects as well as the shift in distribution it will bring is another new “crowd manufacturing cycle” which will lead to disruption of the conventional process of design, manufacture, and distribution. This new crowd manufacturing cycle gives physical existence to a digital design by means of 3D printers, and finally the design reaches the crowd through digital distribution.

The item turns into atoms from digital bits, and then to “social bits”, which means that a finely designed item might come from many adaptations and edits by users, and numerous other variations and iterations may result. For example, a drinking cup may be modified according to the personal hand grip of every user who prints the cup. This will result in a change in the retail and consumption. Just like MP3 compression made it easier to copy music over the 1990s limited internet connection, the simple transfer to three dimensional design files from which items can be printed will change retail as well as distribution. These objects will be ever changing designs – redesigned and re-modified by the crowd, can be printed by a printing company or at home.

Much as the users of internet became assertive producers of Web 2.0 content, customers may become makers, or adaptors, in this new crowd manufacturing cycle. Constant crowd remixing of brand name objects will, at least, weaken the cachet of the brand. In case of luxury brands, “secret sauce” proprietary materials may protect designs which provide specific functionality due to their composition. You won’t be able to buy these sorts of consumables such as eezytrade’s epson ink cartridges.

This crowd manufacturing cycle will be great news for customer choice. The increase in app store-like libraries comprising of printable items will produce a “long tail” of availability and choice, much as Netflix, Amazon and iTunes have done for film, books and music. Moreover, the chain of supply will also change, resulting in an impact on worldwide trade.

As more and more items are printed locally, the number of objects manufactured as well as transported from low-cost, remote economies will decrease.

Some of the manufacture categories will not be affected by disruption. Three-dimensional printing is suitable for once-off production while large print runs of quite simple items are appropriate for conventional manufacturing methods. Using 3D printing to print electronic devices is a long way away, even though there’s early stage research being done on that too.

Apart from electronics, it is obvious that consumers can benefit from 3D printing because of the decline in its price. And 3D printing will come with the crowd manufacturing cycle; which is a future of never-ending choice a well as personalisation. So, it’s time for conventional retailers to beware.