Technology & software

3D printing in the retail industry

3D printing in the retail industry: What are the advantages?

In a highly competitive industry, with tight profit margins and rising consumer demands more and more retailers are adopting 3D printing technology to offer heightened levels of product customisation, broader product design opportunities and faster delivery. We look closely at just how these advantages are giving retailers a crucial competitive edge.

The potential to create complex products

Because so many different materials can be used with 3D printing technology, or Additive Manufacturing as is also known, so many different objects for retail can also be created. These materials include plastics, powders, resins and metals, all of which can make complex designs including jewellery, novelty gifts, toys, furniture and shoe designs. One of the most exciting aspects of 3D printing is the sheer level of intricate designs it is able to create. For example, Nike’s Vapour Laser Talon Football boots helped the brand provide a new level of performance. Comprising of a 3D printed plate made through Selective Laser Sintering, the new boot was designed to provide ‘optimal traction’ and to help athletes maintain their ‘drive stance’ longer. In another show of design complexity, these detailed zoo-themed shower heads   demonstrate both function and form, conveying just how detailed you can be with 3D printing. Created by Voodoo Factory, the showerheads include a range of exotic animal shower heads, the first of which was 3D printed T-Rex shower head which achieved viral success.

3d printing

The ability to make customisation king

Getting to know the hearts and minds of customers helps forge a competitive edge and encourages repeat custom. According to the Deloitte Consumer Review, Made To Order: The Rise of Mass Personalisation, one in five consumers who expressed an interest in personalised products are willing to pay a 20% premium. Not only this, customers are growing to expect personalisation of their products, whether it’s the shape of their sun glasses or the distinct colour of their smart phone case. 3D printing, unlike other manufacturing methods, is not reliant on expensive tooling for unique product designs. The data from the design is sent straight to a 3D printer for production. Footwear is one of the key areas of retail where 3D printing is used for enhanced customisation. In 2018, Danish shoe manufacturer, ECCO launched a project called Quant-U which uses both 3D scanning and 3D printing to create customised shoes. The concept behind it is believed to be so ECCO can provide fully customised shoes to their customers. Taking shoe customisation to a more eye-popping level, these  3D printed tree root shoes from Dutch fashion designer, Iris Van Herpen and architect, Rem D. Koolhaas. Although they might not be quite ready for the high street, the design truly shows the high levels of customisation achievable with 3D printing.

Speeding up product design process

The use of Additive Manufacturing also helps with a faster design and production process, compared to other manufacturing technologies. This is because in a typical product design process, there are edits to be made or mistakes to be rectified in the initial stages before mass production. These adjustments to design can be made accurately and quickly with 3D printing thanks to the use of CAD software which allows for changes to be made to the design file. From a retail perspective, where trends can change at the drop of a hat, 3D printing allows for a new level of responsiveness to continually evolving trends. 

3D printed spare parts for branded goods

Retailers can also benefit from some of the work big brands are doing with additive manufacturing. For example, in 2018, Porsche responded to the issue of the unavailability of spare parts for its rare classic models by adopting 3D printing to produce small quantities of some of its parts. In the same year, home appliance brand, Whirlpool began working with Spare Parts 3D to help make the obsolescence of spare parts a thing of the past by using 3D printing technology to produce them and thereby improve its aftersales service. Both these instances represent the new levels of customer experience which will undoubtedly benefit retailers too. 

The opportunity to become more sustainable

Thanks to the ability to produce on-demand, 3D printing does not require consistent transportation synonymous with traditional manufacturing, nor does it require large areas for storage, both having an impact on carbon footprints. Furthermore, as an additive form of manufacturing, less waste material is produced as only the precise amount is used to create a product, and a biodegradable material like PLA plastic which is made from renewable sources can also be used with 3D printing machines.  


The pure scope of potential and the proven advantages of responsiveness, cost-effectiveness, complex product design and sustainability suggest that 3D printing is on the precipice of turning the retail industry on its head and only begs the question: what’s next?