When I was a kid, we’d go to the beach every summer, and just like today, a common souvenir was the t-shirt. However, back in those far off times, stores actually stocked decals with funny sayings or pictures on them. You’d select the decal you wanted on your t-shirt, and they’d take a plain colored shirt and melt the decal onto it with an industrial hot press.
As manufacturing methods changed and other types of printing grew in popularity, the iron-on t-shirt faded into obscurity, but retailers and manufacturers might want to think about this old-fashioned style of onsite manufacturing, because it just might be the answer to their problems.
Fast forward to 2012 and you can see what I mean. The Harvard Bookstore near Harvard Square is celebrating its 80th birthday this year and, despite pressures from e-books, scan and scram, and big-box book stores with coffee shops and larger inventories, this little two-level book shop just off Harvard Square is doing remarkably well. It is seeing double-digit increases in sales while most local book stores are failing.
One of the major reasons, according to this article in Forbes, is onsite manufacturing. The Harvard Book Store owns an "Espresso Book Machine." The Espresso Book machine can print and bind any book available on Google books (and other sources) in exactly four minutes. The books are identical to those that come from publishers. With the various databases that the Espresso is allowed to tap into, the Harvard Book Store can now carry 5 million titles instead of a few thousand, as it could before.
That means the same instant gratification, the same gigantic inventory, and the same ordering ease that just recently was the province of e-books is now available in paper. And no waiting for the shipping as with online retailers. But just in case you can’t come into Harvard Book Store, they’ll be glad to ship the book for you by eco-friendly “pedal truck.”
Now, that’s nice. And good for Harvard Book Store for defending itself against Amazon and e-books.
But think about the potential in other retail industries. Imagine a clothing store with a machine that could do the same thing for clothes. See a shirt you like on someone? Snap a picture of it and let the machine figure out who made it and make an exact copy for you. See the latest trend on the runways in Paris? Get a copy of it instantly in a mall in Iowa. Your favorite boutique now stocks millions of garments instead of a few hundred.
Granted, doing this with clothing is a little more complicated than books. Books mostly are paper and black ink. Even pictures and covers only add color to the equation. With clothing (or, think about it, you could eventually do this with any product) you have to keep different types of fabrics, dyes, and decorative elements like buttons and zippers. You have to create a machine that can make different types of cuts and stitches, not to mention more complicated maneuvers. But imagine you start small -- maybe with t-shirts like at the beach when I was a kid.
Instead of a few hundred shirts like those decals offered when I was a kid, I can buy literally any t-shirt anywhere. Wouldn’t that help a brick-and-mortar store compete against the Internet? Think Zazzle or Threadless, two major Internet custom t-shirt companies, but now you can have every shirt off of any site, by any designer, and instead of waiting weeks for it, you can wait minutes.
The future of retail and of manufacturing is here. It sits in a tiny book shop just off Harvard Square, founded 80 years ago -- onsite, on-demand manufacturing. Soon manufacturing techniques and 3D printing are going to let us build products for sale in a store, from books to shirts to smartphones. What do you think? Comment below.