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Will 3D Printing Change the Face of Ecommerce?

  • Jul 4, 2015 | Mark Berens

Once a gee-whiz technology showcased by breathless reporters and proud automotive, aerospace, and medical geeks, 3-D printers—devices that produce three-dimensional objects—used to carry enormous price tags affordable only to a few high-worth industries and universities.

Today, as technology improves and prices/sizes plummet, Joe Average can get one for a few hundred dollars and print small, novelty-ish gizmos from jewelry and trinkets to iPhone cases and toys, right from home.

While 3-D printers aren’t yet as ubiquitous in homes as inkjet printers, there’s no shortage of companies, new and very established, more than willing to help smooth the transition.

Startups and Big Boxes are on Board

Shapeways (the largest marketplace for 3D printed products—as of June, 2012, printing and selling more than one million user-created objects) and Sculpteo allow users to send in their designs for 3-D printing on their own printers. If it’s a one-off product for yourself, they’ll mail it back to you; if you think there’s a larger market for your creation, they’ll put your product on their online marketplace and take care of the rest.

Not ones to be left behind, Amazon recently created a 3-D product store offering nearly one hundred products, and Walmart’s CEO recently announced that “in some cases” it might make sense for them to offer 3-D printing service program. Of course, both companies also sell 3-D printers.

Will 3-D Printing Bring Market Disruption?

With WalMart and Amazon entering the fray comes unique concerns that go far beyond the typical big box handwringing: as 3-D printers become less fringe and appear in homes or even local printing hubs, what will become of the manufacture and sale of products?

How will printing physical items at home affect the stream of commerce? Are our manufacturers and retailers throwing out the opportunity to create and sell little plastic babies with the 3-D printing bathwater?

The new technology certainly presents both opportunities and threats. A few of the concerns:

  • Will there be fewer off-the-shelf and online products available for sale, or will consumers just buy the design and rights from merchants then print them from home?
  • Will older, obsolete products get extended lives if consumers can just buy the rights to print hard-to-find or discontinued parts?
  • Will consumers buy existing products, then customize it themselves or use a third-party service?
  • Will retailers use the technology themselves to maintain inventory and lower their supply-chain costs?
  • Is the future in selling 3-D printers and materials, or creating marketplaces for products?
  • Will FedEx and UPS—even Amazon’s pending drone service—deliver fewer packages, or should they set up local 3-D printing hubs to counter losses?
  • Will 3-D printing speed up the design, testing, and market introduction of new products or flood it with untested junk?
  • Regarding the tax implications, if you sell a design for someone to print on their home printer, are you selling a good (taxable in customer location in a lot of jurisdictions, and subject to sales tax), or are you selling some form of intellectual property or a license, with very different tax implications? An interesting question, unlikely to be resolved without litigation.

Who’s Actually Using/Not Using 3-D Printing and Why

Before there’s widespread panic and rumblings to move the e-commerce Doomsday Clock hands ahead, a bit of useful raw data from Robo 3D may ease concerns (at least for now). Robo 3D (the San Diego-based company that famously sought $49,000 from Kickstarter to fund its 3-D printer prototype and ended up with $649,663) created and sells its “affordable” $800 R1 3-D printer.

Of course, as the market grows, it might be important to know who is buying and for what reasons. As a result, Robo 3D received some interesting information from its consumer survey of 3-D printer users:

  • 80 percent are printing prototypes
  • 65 percent are printing items for the home/household
  • 63 percent are printing machinery parts
  • 46 percent are printing office items
  • 45 percent of the respondents have an income of up to $80,000
  • 4 percent of the survey respondents were women
  • Millennials are the least engaged in 3-D printing

So, as far as being a disruptive force in ecommerce, 3-D printing isn’t there yet. And, as far as we can glean from this survey, consumers aren’t yet pushing aside their coffeemakers and cans of Maxwell House to take up precious counter space for 3-D printers.

But, like the humble coffeemaker, 3-D printers may likely soon be a staple in homes and offices, dispensing items easily, piping hot, and ready to go. Once that happens, of course, is the Starbucks of 3-D printing not far behind?

Featured Image Credit: Klaas Harm

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Avalara Author
Mark Berens
Avalara Author Mark Berens