3d printingTechnology could be entering a brave new world with the advent and adoption of 3D printers. The machines are highly versatile and their uses are only limited by our creativity. The printers have been predicted to be able to change almost every field, from medicine to construction, in revolutionary ways. But what about online marketing? Is there room for 3D printing as a tool to reach customers? There just might be.

The Numbers on 3D Printing

3D Printing has been getting a lot of attention in the last few years. Most recently , as Nick Vivion notes for TNooz, at SXSW this year, “3D printing was everywhere” and “the idea that the sexiest startups are now working to create physical products” was in full force. With good reason, too.

3D printing is wowing entrepreneurs and enthusiasts because of its extreme flexibility. It has applications for almost any industry or field. Matt Petronzio on Mashable has a wonderful write-up explaining just exactly what 3D printing is, as well as mentioning that by 2015 the market is expected to reach $3.7 billion, up from $1.7 million right now.

Looks like there’s obviously a market here to take advantage of. But how exactly could 3D printing help businesses and agencies reach consumers? I’ve got a few ideas.

Printing to Reach Customers

For businesses and agencies looking into the future, adopting 3D printing for marketing could very well be viable. If 3D printing becomes widespread and cheap enough for consumers to have their own printers, it will create an entirely new way to reach customers and fans of your products, brand, or business.

It would be very easy to create accessories for your products that customers could print wherever they have access to a 3D printer. The possibilities of what you could share with or provide for customers would be limited by how far along 3D printing technology has come and how creative of a group the marketing team is.

Imagine rolling a 3D printing strategy into a marketing campaign – it would combine the digital and the analog world in a way that has never been done before. Fans and followers would have more of a reason to follow and interact with your brand online in anticipation of getting new designs to print.

Right now the cheaper 3D printers aren’t capable of making very complex objects, but as the technology improves and gets more affordable, the capabilities will improve immensely.

Cutting Out the Middle Man

For some businesses, they might be able to skip out on production altogether. If 3D printing does turn out to be much cheaper than traditional means of manufacturing, a business could simply offer its design through a purchasing system to sell their products directly to the consumer, who could then print them. All they would need to reach customers is a presence online through a homepage and social media. At the very least, it gives businesses – especially small businesses – greater flexibility in tweaking and developing prototypes of new products.

A Customization Movement

3D printing could also lead to a new wave of customization for businesses. Adopting this perspective would be a huge boost to a company looking to get its name out there. Imagine people tweeting or sharing their personally customized version of your product that fits them perfectly. A business could easily market the base design for a product, and tout its customizability to consumers everywhere.

Marketing will have to adjust to this new trend and I have a feeling social media and ad targeting would get a lot more personal in terms of how agencies and marketers reach customers. Customers will need to connect more in-depth to a product when they have the ability to make it their own. Brand and image will be key to maintaining a strong reputation in a 3D printing world.

Eric Savitz at Forbes has created an informative post predicting the next trends in 3D printing. The customization potential of 3D printing will force “leaders [to] adjust their sales, distribution and marketing channels to take advantage of their capability to provide customization direct to the consumer.” That’s a big shift which very well could come sooner than we think.

Trivial or Revolutionary?

To be fair here, there are some who argue that 3D printing is not the next revolution. James Woudhuysen makes a strong case against getting too excited about 3D printing. I’ll let you make up your own mind, as I’m a bit of a technology optimist (could you tell?) when it comes to these new technologies.

I do acknowledge however, that 3D printing could end up being trivial, or have only an average influence in industry and business. It still has the potential to be revolutionary and I hope 3D printing meets that potential. I’m in the boat that wants to see a 3D printing future that “basically [looks] like Star Trek, where replicators can make anything with a mere voice command.” That’s quite a few years off in the future, but I can keep dreaming, right?

When it comes to changes in business and marketing, 3D printing won’t have much of an affect in the next few years. It’s worth keeping an eye on from time to time, however. Hopefully you’ll start thinking about the opportunities this technology holds for your business or agency, and the world in general.

Is 3D printing going to change online and traditional marketing? How long will it take before the technology has an affect?