Low Volume and Custom Made – Opportunities

I’ve mentioned 3D printing before as an example of enabling technology. Tools that used to cost tens of thousands of dollars are now in reach of anyone with sufficient interest and from prices of less than a thousand dollars.

That’s a huge change. What fewer people pick up on is that such a change shifts what’s possible in the market, and essentially changes the rules. Things that were essentially impossible before are suddenly doable. Big companies won’t pick that up as their cost structure demands big clients. But for a correctly structured startup, it’s exactly the kind of thing you want!

A Dutch/American company called Shapeways appears to “get it” and has stepped into this market. The BBC has done an item on it (see video below) featuring a custom made shoe with an iPhone holder. The exact product is perhaps a bit tacky to some, but it makes the underlying point quite well and the guy who explains it notes exactly what it’s about. There isn’t a huge market for many of these things, but that’s fine. People often think only in terms of scaling up, and they’re missing the opportunities of essentially scaling things down. At high volumes, you can’t serve the individual.

So, it’s an enabler. When you have an idea, you can now get one or two items made – even when done commercially, with this technology that can be economical. It’s printed (additive) or cut (subtractive), rather than moulded – configuring a production line for a moulded product is expensive and the moulds themselves are actually also very costly (so it’s uneconomical for small production runs). But none of that matters with 3D printing.

3D printing is a disruptive technology in both commonly known senses:

  1. it provides a “good enough” cheaper manufacturing solution for people and companies who are already producing. Existing production methods have essentially overshot the needs of that part of the market, so their pricing is relatively high in that market segment.
  2. Things that were previously not viable now are, and that opens whole new markets. Typically clients find products, not the other way round – so it’s very important to observe and match the need, rather than come up with some static idea of what you think the market needs and go out and try to sell that. Even if you get the product right, you don’t know what the market is yet. Market research really won’t help you.

It’s good to see that Shapeways and companies like Makerbot Industries (there are many more) are exploring these new opportunities. And if you’re interested, check it out – there is plenty of space for more on the local level. These companies do things quite big, but it can also be done on a very small scale. I’m still waiting for a local “copyshop” offering a 3D printing service. That’s where it’s going – but if the local copyshops and printers don’t get it, someone else can pick it up. It could be you.

This stuff can be done with minimal investment, part online, low volume, low cost per item, quick local delivery, opportunities for assistance with design, and so on. The software tools and online resources are available, just check out OpenSCAD and Thingiverse.

If you start something like this and specifically aim local and small, the big existing companies cannot compete with you: they would not be able to do what you do at a sane price. They might not even notice you at first. If they do, they’ll laugh and dismiss – your “small fry” activity is just not of interest to them. That’s a good thing. But you can do good business and also grow.

Think about it… take the initiative. And if you do need some help developing your strategy, we’re here.