What happens to shops when we can print our own products?

Record stores. Movie rental stores. Copy centers. Book stores. All of those things are either hurting for business or out of business thanks to disruptive technological advances. That’s what disruptive technology does. It’s a game-changer, changing not just the rules, but the very nature of the game. But could the physical store itself become extinct? We’ve moved from buying physical objects to buying digital representations of those objects and carrying them around on our phones. What happens when we take the next step, and turn those digital files back into physical objects? That’s what’s coming on fast, thanks to 3D printing, and it’s going to change everything.

Where’d you get those glasses?

Imagine this scenario. You’re walking by a store and spot a pair of sunglasses from your favorite brand. You take a picture, run it through an app that creates a digital CAD file of the sunglasses, and take it across town to a 3D printing center. Or you send the file to Amazon and in either scenario, a few hours later, you would have a brand new pair of sunglasses for far less than you’d pay in a physical store. Is that stealing? You didn’t physically steal anything; there’s no merchandise missing from the store. You could make the argument that what you stole was a potential sale. But you may have never even considered paying full price to begin with, in which case there was no real lost sale. So if there’s no victim, and no missing merchandise, is it really stealing? If you think about it a little further, you would realize that you did steal a design that is owned by its creator.

The entertainment industry faced a similar problem with the rise of MP3 sharing. They found it so hard to contain they lost millions of dollars in revenue and had to make major adjustments to the way they delivered their product. One of those adjustments was streaming technology, in which you never own the product, but only access it remotely. There’s no way to copy a file that you never stored in the first place.

But let’s back up. Most physical objects cannot be copyrighted in the same way a song or a movie can. Right now, there’s no law stopping you from printing out a replacement part for your car. The issue of 3D printing piracy poses big questions when it comes to brand control. To take the sunglasses example—the Ray Bans logo may be protected under licensing or trademark law. But what if you print out a pair of Ray Bans without the logo? The courts have a lot of work ahead of them trying to figure all of that out.

Consumers are the new producers

Piracy is a big issue, but it’s not the only one. What about customization? Imagine a world where a consumer buys a digital file of an existing product, customizes it to their particular preferences, and then print out the new product. You’ve just reversed the roles of producer and consumer. This scenario has the potential to disrupt almost every part of the free market.

Ask yourself these questions: How reliant will we be in the future on big physical plants cranking out products? If your answer is far less, what happens to the workers there? Engineers will stay busy, but the folks who used to run machinery on the plant floor will need new skills if their job is developing digital files.

Many counterfeit goods are discovered as they pass through customs. What happens when physical goods can be transported as digital files?

The end of retail as we know it?

As I’ve said before, the winners will be the companies that accurately predict where future opportunities lie. One company, Authentise, has already figured out how to deliver files to a 3D printer as a streaming service. With that technology, you wouldn’t actually buy a digital file; you’d buy a one-time right to print from a digital file.

Retail stores are not going out of business and in fact they could thrive if they use the Hard Trends that are shaping the future to reinvent themselves and migrate their brand towards increasing relevancy. For example, some office supply stores are already offering 3D printing as a service. 3D printing on demand means that customers will no longer walk into stores to pick out products, but to print out products.

When the world of 3D printing goes mainstream, how will your business be a part of it? Will you dig in your heels like the record companies when they faced the threat of MP3s? Or will you get out in front with the disruptors? Will you be the disruptor?

Legislators and courts will work out the thorny details of IP and piracy. What’s relevant is that the categories of manufacturer and consumer, of designer and end-user, are about to be seriously disrupted by the 3D printing revolution that lies ahead. Huge opportunities await for the businesses that anticipate these changes. Will you be one of them?

This article is published in collaboration with LinkedIn. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Daniel Burrus is the founder and CEO of Burrus Research.

Image: A figurine is printed by Aurora’s 3D printer F1 during the 2014 Computex exhibition at the TWTC Nangang exhibition hall in Taipei. REUTERS/Pichi Chuang 

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