Luxury in 3D

David Millán. Professor. IE Business School

3 December 2013

It is possible for companies in the world of luxury to use 3D printing to innovate and leverage opportunities, without renouncing craftsmanship. 

Recently a student of the Executive Development Program on Strategic Management for Luxury Firms talked to me about his fascination with the potential that 3D printing could have for his family business, a high quality clothing confection company based in Germany.

The first reaction one might have is that this particular new technology might not catch the attention of firms in the luxury sector. A manufacturing technique that produces exact replicas by means of a direct printing process would appear to be at odds with the hand-crafted products associated with the luxury sector.

Nevertheless, on deeper analysis of this trend there are certain characteristics that render it more attractive than it may appear at first. Particularly if you consider some of the main benefits of 3D printing is that it is possible to do highly personalized limited editions.  

In the midst of the enormous potential associated with this technology, we can find a broad range of examples in other industries. These include, to mention just a few, the Makies Doll Factory app, which permits the client to design a doll that can then be printed in 3D format and sent to their home. Or Protos Eyewear, which crafts glasses based on a photograph sent by the client, by printing them based on the measures the client provides.

It is also important to underline the fact that the scope of 3D printing goes way beyond production. It brings improvements to other parts of the value chain. For example, Nike and Adidas are already using this technology to build their prototypes (thereby improving their reliability and reducing the time spent on developing new products). Meanwhile NASA aims to use 3D printing to repair craft parts in space.

So what could the repercussions be for a company in the luxury sector? From the moment it enables an improvement in personalization or design and development processes we can start thinking about possible benefits. It’s a good idea to point out that we are obviously not talking about replacing traditional or hand crafted products by any measure. We are talking about providing complementary products or improving the service.

In fact we have begun to see some examples of greater added value for products, thanks to 3D printing.  Continuum is using the system to produce 3D bikinis designed by the client, adapted to their exact measures (for a price of approximately $300). And last January designer Iris Van Herpen’s collection included shoes manufactured using 3D printing.

The student I mentioned early had the kind of problem that this technology could very probably solve. A customer has a quality coat, but has lost a button. Now it will be easy to produce an exact replica using 3D printing: identical, immediate, with no need to keep in stock. The company can provide the client with a much valued service at an infinitely lower cost.

It’s true that this technology is still developing, and it is giving rise to high expectations. It would therefore seem reasonable to explore how this potential can translate into real benefit, without succumbing to the temptation of hyperbole. Above all, given the broad range of possibilities, it would be interesting to think about which parts of the value it can help with, and to what extent, to find out which improvements would be most appreciated by customers.

You can argue that this goes against the luxury tradition. But then did Coco Chanel or Jean Jaques Breguet (who invented the tourbillon) stand out because of their traditional values or because of their capacity for innovation and capacity to transform their respective industries?

In short, all this can help us gauge the delicate balance between evolution and tradition, which is extremely important for firms operating in the luxury sector. Whatever the case, it is important not to lend more weight than necessary to tradition, when what is really needed is the ability to know how to integrate all kinds of improvement in order to continue to create the kind of extraordinary products that dreams are made of.

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