3D Printing and Customer Experience: The Customer is Now Producer

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In TTEC’s continuing blog series on technologies that are transforming the customer experience, we explore Near Field Communication technology.    

In the wake of Google Glass, 3D printing is another disruptive technology that is transforming the customer experience as we know it. Where is the paradigm shift? With the ability to “print” virtually any object, 3D printing shifts creating and manufacturing capabilities to the customer, potentially diminishing vendor power and decreasing the value of their products. So, what should business leaders do about it? First, understand what 3D printing is, and then keep reading.

What is 3D Printing?

Often referred to as additive manufacturing, 3D printing is the process of layering material into virtually any solid shape. As Sculpteo’s infographic explains, digital designs and graphic design software guide 3D printers to dispense metal, plastic, and other materials onto moving platforms. Successive layers of material are deposited to create anything from shoes to replacement jawbones, and even fully functional guns. If you can design it, a 3D printer can create it.

3D printing is still in its early days. Printers are expensive and adoption has been slow, but 3D printing has received lots of media attention lately. Some anticipate 3D printers in nearly every household by 2030 and beyond.1

At first, printers may not seem like a game changer within the customer experience landscape, but 3D printing certainly has the potential to shift even more power into the consumer’s hands. With the customer now acting as the product producer, it’s even more important for companies to listen to their customers and build a proactive approach to meet their needs. After all, if companies don’t deliver on customer demands, customers will simply take the manufacturing process into their own hands to create exactly what they want.

But what about copyright infringement, patents, and trademark laws, you ask? Right now, 3D printing is the Wild West, with some anticipating it as the next big copyright fight.2 Current copyright laws forbid individuals from reproducing copyrighted designs, but they do not stop them from downloading copyrighted designs.1 With 3D printers in private homes and businesses, how can these laws be enforced? Companies that sell consumer goods that could easily be printed have the most to fear.

So, what should business leaders do about all this?

As business leaders, we need to stop emphasizing product features, development, and distribution, and start focusing on the customer relationship and customer value. Today, customers are your product, and the customer experience ecosystem is your value proposition. In the world of 3D printing, if companies let go of the product roadmap, engage customers, and let them drive the product development through 3D printing (rewarding those who get it right), chances for success increase exponentially.

Look at Nike. When 3D printing allows customers to print their own athletic shoes, Nike has nothing to worry about. For it has evolved from an athletic shoe company into an ecosystem around its customers’ health concerns and fitness goals. Nike created applications that allow customers to interact with their shoes and build relationships with the brand. Even better—these applications are collecting customer information and allowing Nike to market itself as a health and fitness company—not just a shoe company.

When 3D printing threatens to rob companies of their most profitable products, companies still have value to offer with their customer relationships and the ecosystems they built around their products. Ultimately, it’s not the product that the customer is after—it’s the outcome. So, when we engage customers (and their 3D printers) and focus on helping the customer achieve that outcome, success is sure to follow.  

This infographic was created by Sculpteo, and this article summarizes some of its contents. The original infographic is here.