As part of looking at key themes for the Best of Branded Content Marketing Live event I’m helping put on, I caught up with internet veteran and serial entrepreneur Ivan Pope who has been writing a series on the coming 3D printing ecosystem for 3DPI. He was the first person to show me the pre-web internet back in the early 90s, and went on to co-found the UK’s first web agency, set-up the domain name registration service net names, among other ventures. I catch-up with him on a regular basis to hear about what’s next on the horizon, and what that might mean as far as branded content marketing is concerned. Given all the hype surrounding 3D printing I was fascinated to understand why he thought that 3D branded content publishing hasn’t caught on more?
Ivan explained that people need to understand that the 3D production space is real, and is only going to get more so over the next decade or so; and that there are already some very big brand owners who are looking closely at how they become involved in it, with some already tipping their toes in the water. For example, Hasbro recently announced that it will allow fans to adapt and modify their brands into new artwork that can be 3D printed and sold via Shapeways. Alternatively, you can 3D print off loved but not often seen Sesame Street characters from the MakerBot Digital Store as part of their celebration of the 45th anniversary season of the show.
Agencies are also experimenting in this space. AMV BBDO partnered with 3D printing company Ultimaker last Christmas to set-up a pop-up shop for the Kids Company charity. Passers by could use their mobiles to buy presents for vulnerable children who wouldn’t otherwise receive anything at Christmas.
Ivan sees these examples as evidence that something bigger is about to happen, but thinks other brands will need to see more real world projects before they follow suit. By this he means bigger brands that have a track record of early adoption of utilising new technologies and channels, rather than just dreamers with start-ups.
One of the reasons Ivan thinks we are seeing a slow introduction of large projects is that the ecosystem doesn’t really exist as yet. He sees quite a few start ups with ambitious founders in this space looking to be part of that ecosystem, but it is still early days – pointing out that regardless of how much we’d like things to arrive fully formed tomorrow, it always take a bit time as with everything else. For Ivan this isn’t just about the tools, it’s also about the understanding. This includes working through issues, and he says that requires people to meet each other to talk about things in order to really learn about what the process consist of, and how the ecosystem can support it:
Imagine if someone at Disney proposed the company make a number of their characters available as 3D printable files for people to buy, download and print, as well as make licensing deals with partners. The first thing their boss would want to know about is the control mechanisms on the process, such as the legal considerations, but also what’s in place to prevent piracy, and how this is all going to work commercially. At things stand, brands would currently have to go away and invent almost all of that.
There are people brands can talk to though who are active in this space like Shapeways and MakerBot mentioned above, but it’s not clear if there are solutions to all the issues yet – particularly with regard to scaling beyond the early adopters.
Ivan suggests that one way of thinking about where the 3D Printing ecosystem is at, is to look at how the web grew out the Internet. He thinks there are a lot of similarities. Firstly, 3D Printing is an idea that people immediately get, have got excited by, and has gained currency very quickly. But he thinks it’s also one that will also need a lot of minds in the mix for the ecosystem to develop. As he explains, the Internet had been developing in the background for decades before the web came along and added a layer of value. Likewise, 3D printing is not a brand new invention that has come out of nowhere either. In fact, it’s one with a lot of money in it, particularly at the high quality low quantity production end. So as with the web Ivan points out that 3D Printing is not being built from scratch, there is an infrastructure, understanding and a reality; and this also includes a mass market that’s beginning to come about:
If you look at the concept of the web browser that Tim Berners-Lee invented, it took a couple of commercial iterations before there was something available that really worked. And if you look back at those early products, then they were pretty dire in comparison with what we have now. But the limitations of these products in terms of functionality, didn’t stop them being ‘gloriously’ adopted by people.”
But he thinks we are still at the point where people are being to understand where the 3D Printing space is at and possibly heading, and that’s why the money is pouring in even if there’s less certainty about the biz prize:
The moment money is shown to be in the mix it draws people in one way or another, and the ecosystem builds itself around it. So, as with the early days of the web, there’s a gold rush mentality building that’s attracting a lot of smart people to the space. But to a degree they are still running around saying where is the mother node to this space, where shall I stick my stake in the ground so that I’m in the right space when this gets really big.
For better or for worse, Ivan thinks we are at that point, and there are no easy answers. But for Ivan this is what makes it fascinating because we don’t quite know how everything will pan out, but see an industry starting to form and one where there are opportunities for brand owners to get in early.
At the start-up enthusiast end, everyone is in wholesale, but big companies are only experimenting right now even if this can mean a few million dollars on one or two projects to test things out. But as more case studies start to appear, then we’ll see more bigger brands owners starting to invest.
In the meantime, Ivan thinks that one of the barriers to adoption is the shortage of finding people who have a proven track record of doing things in this space:
It’s always useful to find lawyers who have written a few terms and conditions for this space, run into problems, seen things wrong, seen things go right, and can speak from some experience, i.e. so you can go an speak to someone that’s been doing some interesting work in this space, particularly if you’d like to push thinks a little bit further and get their view on it.
However, he says it’s still a bit early for this to happen, and ditto with executives that have worked on one or two successful projects. Nonetheless, he thinks they are starting to appear, and the understanding will also get better through hits and misses just as it did with the web. He thinks there are also technology barriers, including: the cost of production; quality of production and material; the distribution of machines; etc. But he doesn’t think they are real barriers because they are technology ones, and they will all be solved. He thinks the real barrier is a mindset based on there not being enough competitors/comparators out there, and the industry not being all systems go quite yet.
What Ivan thinks we are starting to see though is that there will be a professional bureau style production end where local but not home-based companies will print higher end ‘things’. He also thinks there will almost certainly be lower end production going on at the domestic end, just like we have ink jet printers in our homes to print a whole load of things we get from the internet:
Just have a look what happened with the airline industry. They moved wholesale from the centralized production of tickets that they sent out to travellers, to where they now provide the tickets so they can printed at home by their customers. Now that happened in quite a short space of time, so we’re likely to see examples of something similar happening at the domestic end of 3D Printing.
The questions he’s being asked by businesses though is whether people will print things because they can (e.g. print off Sesame Street characters from the MakerBot Store), or whether they’ll be printing personalised/customized objects that have more value (e.g. modify Hasbro brands via Shapeways). Ivan thinks it will probably be a mixture of the two, but we won’t be replacing the mass production in China any time soon:
What we may see is a whole industry of add ons, extensions, new elements, personalized inventions for the likes of existing toy systems and other products. Take LEGO® as an example, where people like making extras that plug into their bricks. But not everyone can design these things, so there are opportunities for smart companies to give people tools that allow them to create their own printable add ons without having to start from scratch.
I hope to be looking at 3D Branded Content publishing as part of the Best of Branded Content Marketing Live event I mentioned above, and plan to be speaking to others in this space as part of this series. In the meantime, you can read a version of this interview on the 3D Printing Industry site here.