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Is This The End of Retail Manufacturing As We Know It?

20th Mar 2017

Old School 3D Printing in Retail Stores

While doing some research along Oxford Street in London, our Account Director Ben Holden stumbled across something worryingly impressive for our industry, and we had to share it.


We love a good gaze at retail stores and admiring their environments. I expect like most of you, I can't seem to go shopping without immediately thinking about design, lighting, fixtures and the space in general. It's both a blessing and a curse. But this time, it was a real eye-opener. I've personally always been a fan of Urban Outfitters, but recently I've begun to admire the brand for a few different reasons. Standing at the basement level of the Oxford Street store (the one near the Primark end), there it was - a fully operating timber CNC machine. You can see this through a glass window into what should perhaps be the back of office or store room. This machinery is a very familiar sight to me but not in this environment, and I was intrigued to know more, so I had to ask. The stores are sent drawings directly from the head office in the US, which are then manufactured from using the CNC machine in store. Yes, in store! With skilled joiners on site, it was only a matter of moments (figuratively speaking) before the drawing became a fixture. Obviously, the material pallet is limited to sheet plywood, etc. It gives them flexibility to update the look and feel constantly and change the experience. Apparently, they have been working like this for quite a while now and I expect to some of you this is old news. So, this has set me thinking; this unique set-up is an extension of 3D printing. Like 3D printing, the technology is limiting in material choice but the possibilities for creativity are endless. I know none of the detail and business case behind the set up, but would it be cheaper or more expensive than the conventional route? Environmentally, it may have its benefits, because they're only moving flat materials around. Of course, the materials will have a carbon footprint but this is the ultimate local supply chain, and potentially they could recycle some used materials into new fixtures. Evidently, this is great theatre and I'm not sure if it is the end of our industry as they can't produce everything. The store still used conventional steel rails and hooks for merchandising apparel so, they probably still need to buy around 50% of the fixtures in. As well as making displays they had produced an impressive cash desk. From my viewpoint of development engineering it's not all that scary. They still need great drawings and good communication to allow their in-store joiners to create the fixtures. As always, it is still important to prototype and test the design centrally to ensure they're workable and safe. So, is this the start of a new revolution in retail fixture manufacture or, is it a unique and innovative approach that enhances a brands values and such as Urban Outfitters? Whatever the business case behind it is from a marketing, environmental and cost point of view, I'm a big fan. It makes me love them just a little bit more and maybe, that's the whole point. 

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