As part of a New York office outing, a few staffers and I made a trip down to SoHo in Manhattan to check out the MakerBot store. Founded in early 2009 in Brooklyn, MakerBot Industries is one of the first businesses to commercialize the 3D printer, enabling folks like you and me to buy a machine and print nifty little gadgets. Instead of having to buy a cell phone case or business card holder, people can now make them on their own thanks to AutoDesk's 3D printing program and the MakerBot printer, which currently sells for around $2,000.
Though 3D printing is in its infancy, the potential is huge, especially for marketing and customer insight, the line of work that Vision Critical specializes in. It made sense for me to sign up for a MakerBot class and check out the shop. The other week, a group of Vision Critical crew met on a Sunday morning for a couple of hours to build our own 3D heart lockets in time for Valentine's Day. After a couple of hours of playing around with AutoDesk, I was able to make the instructed design. And, 40 mins later, it was a real life, plastic creation.
Overall, my experience was neat, but not without some glitches. First, the free AutoDesk program kept acting up and crashing. Second, two of my coworkers' lockets didn't actually lock. And, third, only one of us was actually able to get something written on the inside of the locket. Not to mention, the entire printing process takes nearly an hour and the plastic creation ends up sticking to the surface, so a MakerBot employee has to come with tools to scrape it off (scratching the locket in the process). I should also point out that the printer only prints in two plastics (that look like the kind of plastic lace that we used as kids to make lanyard key chains).
While the experience was truly awesome, personal 3D printing has a long way to go. However, in the next five to 10 years we'll see major developments and improvements. When that time comes - when 3D printing becomes as commonplace as the 2D HP DeskJet printer, brands will have to perk up and consumers will play a huge role in co-creating with each other and corporations. After all, the entire 3D printing movement is based on a culture of Makers and collaborators - people that share designs, ideas and projects through websites that they then use to create real things.
Customers already co-create with brands today, but we're only a decade or so away from seeing customers co-create and print their own 3D designs at home, or send them to big printing shops. Better yet, customers in community-based setting will be able to send 3D designs directly to the brands they love - companies like Apple, who will then be able to create the products that customers demand.
Is your business ready for this new type of world? What are you doing to get prepared? For starters, check out a local 3D printing shop near you.