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The 3D experiment – Week 4: ‘Mind officially blown? That’s OK, 3D print yourself a new one’

by Steve Mair on 1 April 2014

As a young man I was introduced to the idea of a print from a computer via a BBC Acorn and a dot matrix printer. I remember it well, making sure the paper was properly aligned to the print head, attaching it to the guide pins and watching that head slide back and forward, whilst informing the entire room that you were ‘printing’ through a decibel level similar to that of a low flying jumbo jet. At the time I thought, things really can’t get any better than this. I was wrong.

The world moved on to the desktop colour printer, it brought colour printing to the masses. The first time I saw one of these print, I felt a lot like I can imagine homo erectus felt upon discovering the benefits of bashing a couple of stones together above some dry sticks. The world has changed I thought. Things really can’t get any better than this. I was wrong.

Digital photography took off and high quality, photo realistic printing technologies went mainstream. I would think nothing of printing nonchalantly my entire collection of really-not-that-good-arty-macro-photographs just because I could! I would think to myself, really, nothing can beat this! I was wrong.

Jump forward a few years.  The world is an interconnected sphere of amazingness, everything from drones delivering your online shopping almost instantaneously, to the VR helmet ‘the Oculus Rift’, right up to Watson, the IBM supercomputer that competed and won on the American gameshow Jeopardy!

Yet still, there is one thing that has leapt out at me, like a Scottish Salmon heading upstream in Spring, and slapped me in the face. It’s… You guessed it… PRINTING! In 2014, we couldn’t be much further from the days of the dot matrix printer.

To the uninitiated, 3D printing sounds like an idea straight out of Hollywood, a technology that Mr Spock would be more accustomed to, or something you might use in the creation of a flux capacitor. In reality, however, it’s not as complex as you might think, printing layers from the ground up allows the user to create a plethora of objects in just about any shape and size. It’s as advanced as printing can get, and it’s beginning to disrupt the old traditional manufacturing model offering faster, more efficient, and less expensive ways to create truly unique physical brand experiences.

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So what does it mean for us as advertisers?

Firstly, I’d like to point out, if only because I like to blow the collective trumpet of us advertising folk worldwide, that very few technologies have been developed specifically for advertising (if any!). Since the dawn of advertising time, we have had to adapt how we tell our brands stories by finding new ways to engage consumers using these emerging technologies. Think about how we approached TV, the internet and mobile phone. Agencies have introduced ‘new’ skill sets, and new people who can think natively using these new technologies, whilst still telling product stories that delight and engage.

It offers the opportunity to innovate, encouraging us as advertisers to learn by doing, rather than just thinking – a recurring theme at this year’s SXSW. Joi Ito of MIT’s Media Lab spoke of “Failure being a really good way to learn the facts. Experiment, do, make, prototype, learn and then doing it all over again”, while Biz Stone, Co-founder of Twitter spoke of the benefits 3D printing brings to the rapid prototyping stage, insisting that “…in order to succeed spectacularly, you have to be willing to fail spectacularly”.

It opens a whole new creative avenue, where advertisers can solve real world problems and create real value for their brands. I won’t go into detail with examples in this post, I’ll leave that until next week, but I did want to mention here the Belgian insurance provider DVV who have offered their customers a key scanning service, simply allowing them to re-print a copy of their key if they happen to misplace the original.

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A do-it-yourself, punk ethos is emerging, combining creativity, innovation and storytelling. 3D printed parts, combined with controllers such as the Arduino, offer the potential to create brand experiences that would have been completely unachievable only a couple of years ago. We are seeing the rise of the inventor, the engineer, and the real world hacker as roles inside the most forward-thinking of agencies and digital shops.

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The ability to create products that are ultra-personal to the consumer, utilising data to create the most dynamic and personal of prints, or allowing consumers to create their own ‘tweaked’ version of an existing product. Think utilising data from a consumer’s Facebook page that creates a print that tells a personal story about their own social connections.

It offers agencies the ability to work for themselves, don’t get me wrong, we love working for our clients, but with our combined smarts, we should be changing our models, some already are. The potential for developing our own products, of bringing our own ideas to fruition is huge.

On the flip side it will force us as advertisers to really consider the value of what we do to the consumer.  Not wishing to speak ill of our industry, I read a great post by a clever guy by the name of Aki Spicer, in it he highlights the potential of 3D printing, but he also talks about constantly evaluating the output, he goes on to say “Is this additive value or just some more ad crap? Our ad crap is made more evident when it’s a real piece of crap sitting on a desk or floor, therefore the crap factor will, hopefully, make us work harder to do better for audiences who, are increasingly becoming immune to our virtual ad crap, even more so when it’s our physical ad crap”.            

For me, 3D printing sees us at a cross section where art and science collide, it offers advertising such limitless potential, to innovate, to customise, to collaborate and to produce – creating unique physical experiences that consumers will engage with. It is still a little of an unknown quantity in advertising terms, but those that forge ahead and get it right will be remembered. In the words of the great David Ogilvy, “Leaders grab nettles”. So, let’s all go grab nettles.

Steve Mair is Creative Director – Digital at BCM 

- Peter on April 2

Nice work Steve. Go grab those nettles.

- Mr E on April 1

Nice piece Steve.

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