The Report

How 3D printing will change the way we shop

How 3D printing will change the way we shop

Posting in Technology | From Issue 20 June 16 & 23, 2014

An online jewelry shop now lets you 3D-print versions of rings to try on to see what cut and size gem you'd like. Is this the future of retail?

For her 26th birthday, Sarah Buzaglo's father offered to get her something nice. So when the Boca Raton, Fla., resident saw a Facebook ad for Brilliance.com, an online store specializing in diamonds, custom jewelry and engagement rings, she clicked through. As she was shopping, Buzaglo realized she could get 3D-printed versions of the rings she was considering -- either by printing them herself with files downloaded from the site or by having the plastic versions mailed to her.

"I had zero idea what 3D printing honestly meant," she says. "I thought, I don't understand how a picture will help me, but then I was reading about it and was like, 'Oh, they actually send you something.' And when I got it in the mail, it was exactly what I envisioned my ring would look like but it was plastic. It was really convenient ... online, easy, simple, couple days. I don't have to go shopping around."

The program Buzaglo stumbled onto is a new one launched by Brilliance in April. Shai Barel, Brilliance's director of strategic partnership, says the 3D printing option solves a few ring shopping problems, beginning with the fact that many women may not know their ring size. Women who try on a 3D-printed version can also know for sure they are getting a size and shape that looks good on their hand, Barel suggests.

"Most customers think, if they have enough money, 'Why not get two carats or 1.5 carats?' But every person's finger is different, and sometimes a two-carat would look funny on someone with slender fingers," he says.

Additionally, certain gemstone cuts are bigger than others, so a 1-carat round cut is bigger than, say, a 1-carat princess cut. At the time we spoke, about a month after launch, the Brilliance.com site had already filled several hundred requests for 3D-printed rings, with most people opting to receive the files to print themselves, either with their own printers, or, more likely, at a local shop equipped to handle 3D printing.

Much shopping requires trying things on -- not only for size but also for the way something looks when you have it on. Does Brilliance.com's new strategy portend the future? Will we all try things on via 3D printing in the future, rather than opting for the current online shopping ship-and-return back-and-forth?

Probably not. For a long while, it will still be easier to have products delivered than to 3D print samples. "This particular application is filling a very specific niche case for a long-term expensive-product sales cycle," says Sophia Vargas, a Forrester researcher covering operations strategy. "For a lot of products, something like this would be impractical, but for something that is such a high investment, having that middle step point could help [Brilliance] make that sale."

Her collaborator, Michael Yamnitsky, Forrester researcher of emerging technologies, says 3D printers probably won't become a household item in the next three years, but they might in five to 10 years' time. Consumers will need not just the printers but also the software and content, both of which are in an early stage of development, he notes.

Still, more 3D-printed products inspired by the retail sector are entering our lives. Last fall, Nordstrom offered, for a limited time, a 3D-printed pendant necklace and paperweight. Sculpteo enables customers to custom-order objects ranging from smartphone cases to chess pieces to bowls. Another startup, Sols, allows you to photograph your foot with your iPhone in order to create custom insoles. Yamnitsky calls this an example of a "digital end-to-end business model" that doesn't even require human assistance.

Aside from these consumer-facing uses, industry is taking advantage of 3D printing behind-the-scenes to cut prototyping, development and manufacturing times. Most people may not realize they are dealing with 3D-printed products the first time they encounter them. For instance, you'll be more likely to sit on a jet that has a 3D-printed part than to interact with such an object directly, as it's a lot easier to 3D print a complicated add-on to a plane than to manufacture it using traditional methods. Another side benefit: that plane part will be lighter.

Other 3D printing applications seeing early success center on medical products like hearing aids, dental implants, custom insoles and prosthetics, which are made with specially designed printers. Already, Phonak, a manufacturer of hearing systems, uses 3D printing technology to produce 98 percent of its hearing-aid shells.

"3D printing is a lot easier than subjecting a patient to molding [for prosthetics]. They can just scan and shape your limbs for you, and the process is a lot faster and a lot less invasive," Vargas says.

So, despite Brilliance.com's ingenuity, Yamnitsky says 3D printing's more visible influence on shopping will likely be different: "We believe retailers will be more successful in incorporating printers into the in-store experience, like custom sunglasses, children's toys and so forth. As a consumer, you need a specialist to tailor and optimize your prints, and the price performance and software associated with today's consumer-grade 3D printers are not developing fast enough for 3D printing taking off in the home."

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Laura Shin

Features Editor

Laura Shin has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, and is currently a contributor at Forbes. Previously, she worked at Newsweek, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LearnVest. She holds degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure