How can 3D printing crossover into the consumer space?

May 30, 2014
4 min read

3D printing is everywhere in the media right now. In part one of a two part series, Senior Trends Consultant Richard Cope looks at whether it can crossover into the consumer space.

Beyond Novelty Island

Will the concept of ‘plastic people’ be confined to novelty printed gift items like these figurines, or we will we see the emergence of real ‘plastic people’ – by that we mean people who regularly consume – or earn their living from – 3D printed items.

One thing that 3D promises is customisation. The technology’s beauty is that it can produce individual, one-off items at a relatively low cost, compared to other mass manufacturing methods.

The 3D printing method itself involves a process called ‘additive manufacturing’, pioneered by one Charles Hull in 1984. Instead of ink, these printers use plastic filament and unbeknown to many of us we are in fact already surrounded by 3D printed items – from iPhone covers to car parts, but the question is whether 3D can move into areas of more conscious consumption.

At present, 3D exists on the fringes of frivolity and controversy – witness brands like Coca Cola and Selfridge’s offering 3D likenesses of their customers as expensive gifts, whilst the media tut-tuts about the free availability of plans to print of 3D printed firearms.

Customised Creativity


In art and entertainment though, we are starting to see evidence of how it can deliver customised creativity in new forms, from Musicdrop’s personalised wind-up music boxes that play your own compositions, to Crayoncreatures’ power to print tangible 3D models from children’s drawings.

One reason that 3D printing has genuine commercial potential is that consumers are craving some individuality and tangibility. The internet has promoted the esoteric and created personal platforms that impel us to assert our sense of self, yet it has also digitised – and effectively eradicated badges of taste – ‘things’ like music and pictures – and brought us towards a globalised, algorithm-led existence of ubiquity. We’ve seen a reaction in the form of things like Etsy’s artisan marketplace and the rise of localised craft beer breweries and 3D printing can deliver something similar in terms of alternative appeal.

The belief amongst 3D print companies is that the medium’s possibilities extend beyond mere playfulness in to education and employment and schools and universities are becoming core customers. Companies like ItIs3DLtd and Makerbot run academies and seek donors to help them achieve their avowed goal of ‘a printer in every school’ in the belief that they can educate tomorrow’s engineers.

A New Dimension for Artisans

In manufacturing and in culture, we’re already seeing how 3D printing can empower entrepreneurs and artists to challenge major players, whilst maintain their independence.

Michaella Janse van Vuren
Michaella Janse van Vuren

For instance the power of 3D means that sculptors or jewellery or toy designers can work from remote locations, selling creations that customers can buy online and then print in their local store, making distribution costs a thing of the past. For wannabe designers, 3D makes creating and testing prototype parts or products and affordable proposition, whilst it also promotes a collaborative, open source business model.

The New York-based Shapeways company for instance doubles as a platform and marketplace, where designers and printers can collaborate, invest, buy and sell.

With print plans freely available online and home printers like the Peachy Printer soon to be available for as little as $100, the question is whether print can flourish commercially – either in our homes or on our high streets.

iMakr store London
iMakr store London

A visit to London’s iMakr 3D print store gave Mintel some insight in to where the new print industry may be headed. The store is able to turn around bespoke print projects within 24 hours, but with print costs starting at £10 an hour, novelty gift printing doesn’t come cheap. The core customer base for printers themselves remains small businesses and educational establishments.

If big business intervention can lower prices, it is possible to envision consumer appetite for printing things like bespoke jewellery, limited edition art replicas or hard to find replacement parts. The advent of new printing materials like metal and wood also suggests potential for partnerships between traditionally skilled artisans and this new medium.

This is an extract from Mintel’s new webinar Plastic People.

If you would like to know what these trends – and others – mean for your business please contact Richard to discuss our trend presentation, project and facilitation services. E-mail:; Twitter @Richard_Mintel

Richard Cope
Richard Cope

Richard is a Senior Trends Consultant, bringing the latest consumer trends to Mintel clients through bespoke presentations and represents Mintel at global conferences.

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