Many people see 3D printing as a pipedream or something that major brands need not concern themselves with yet.
It's true. It will be a long while before anyone and everyone can effectively hit a "make" button as easily as they are hitting the "print" button from their desktops. It will be a while before you can print out a new pair of Nike runners from your desktop as easily as you're printing your expense reports from Excel. That's the dream of 3D printing, and so long as that dream lives, it will take the focus away from the multitude of amazing things that you will be (and are) able to do with 3D printing immediately... and the impact/disruption that this will cause.
Go back in time.
If you go back to the pre-industrial revolution and before mass manufacturing times, you'll be reminded that things like screws, nails, hinges, bookshelves, kitchen appliances, homes, buggies and more were all built by hand. Each and every little piece. There were no boxes of nails, where each and every one came from an assembly line and were the same size and weight. Each nail was a unique piece. MIT Technology Review published an article recently titled, Micro 3-D Printer Creates Tiny Structures in Seconds. From the article: "Nanoscribe, a spin-off from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany, has developed a tabletop 3-D microprinter that can create complicated microstructures 100 times faster than is possible today. 'If something took one hour to make, it now takes less than one minute,' says Michael Thiel, chief scientific officer at Nanoscribe. While 3-D printing of toys, iPhone covers, and jewelry continues to grab headlines (see The Difference Between Makers and Manufacturers), much of 3-D printing's impact could be at a much smaller scale. Micrometer-scale printing has shown promise for making medical and electronic devices." In short, faster printing technologies are moving from the research lab to industry with a pace that can only de described as exponential. We're starting small, but this is big, important moves. Take these simplistic 3D printers that we currently have in market and think about the ability to replace pieces and parts of a myriad of products on demand. A latch breaks on your luggage, a piece breaks on your phone, the piece of the remote control that you remove to replace the battery snaps and more. All of these smaller pieces can be printed up at the local level. Imagine being able to work through a customer service website for the products you have purchased and being able to "make" your replacement parts locally. Admittedly, there are still service calls to deal with along with warranty issues for those eager enough to do their own repairs or updates, but the potential, opportunity and reality of this is happening. And, it's happening quicker than most of us realize.
The new aftercare.
The subsequent growth of social media was driven - in no small part - by customer service issues. Namely, individuals taking to blogs, Facebook, Twitter and beyond to get an issue with a brand resolved by calling them out in public. As this independence continues and more web services that are self-serve come online (think about booking a flight, online banking or making an appointment at an Apple Genius Bar), the likelihood that once you have identified an issue that you can simply get a new replacement part right from your desktop is an inevitability. The brand simply send the 3D printing file to your computer to make at home or the nearest maker space.
This is, obviously, only the beginning.
3D printing - in all of its nascent excitement - is still expensive, slow and there is not mass adoption. The same was true about the personal computer, but it rapidly became more and more commonplace. I'm bullish on 3D printing because it just makes good business sense. It reduces waste, shipping issues and creates entirely new opportunities for brands to engage with consumers. This includes (but is not limited to), the replacement of parts discussed above, new and original products and much more. Early days? Yes. Very early. Something to watch and pay attention to? Absolutely.
Things are going to change faster than we have anticipated them. They always do.