News recently on the website 3ders.org about the potential use of 3D printing by Ikea in some stores can raise some questions about if this may lead to a growth in 3D print customization in the consumer segment. Will consumers rush out to Ikea and insist on customizing the latest piece of furniture (similar to how mainly young men want to customize their cars!)? Will you be able to go into the store and have your custom drawer handles printed on the fly whilst trying out the 2 euros menu in their cafeteria?
Not so fast! 3D printing is still a slow process and if there is queue of people waiting you are unlikely to see your print that same day. Printer speed is getting better all the time but it will be some time before you can print a part in the same time that it takes to heat up food in a microwave oven.
Also, 3D design software can be very complex although there are more and more free tools available such as SketchUp which even a 5 year old can use to create objects or products to be 3D printed or link to free designs offered on sites such as thingiverse. The other option would be to scan an object but there could be potential copyright issues behind this.
It may make sense to offer first some 3D printed objects that can easily be added onto existing furniture such as furniture handles. Larger pieces of furniture would not benefit from 3D printing due to the higher cost of printing a custom part. Children or adults can create their design via an app and have them be printed out similar to what Mattel has recently launched. Key questions would be what materials to use for the printed objects and what finishing should be used. If the materials are too expensive then nobody will buy and compared to the price of the overall product (the furniture) the 3D printed parts may represent a high % of the overall price. Also, the first time that anyone has touched an unfinished 3D printed part made from PLA or ABS the initial reaction is to be disappointed with the finish. If the part has passed through a finishing process I believe that it will be of interest to the public. They may want to build this capability up in-store rather than going via a print bureau. One of the key selling points needs to be the fact that the 3D printed objects are made locally rather than using a 3D print bureau or manufacturing facility located in another country and the time required for printing should not be measured in weeks but hours. This will allow the company to build up their 3D print knowledge and leverage this knowledge in the design of new products and reduce the amount of CO2 due to less shipping.
So what kind of 3D printers could Ikea use? Well, rather than blowing their budget on some high-end printers in their store they may want to look at mid-range SLA or FDM printers depending on what they expect their customers to be printing. This will allow to offer items in colour and without having to spend a small fortune on expensive printers.
Conclusion: if Ikea is considering offering a customer 3D print solution they should be applauded for bringing this to customers who until now have little idea how 3D printing can benefit them.