3D Printing: The Longest Tail

By on November 15th, 2015 in Ideas

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We’re contemplating the effects of 3D printing on the world and realized that it could provide the longest tail of all. 

We’re talking about something called the “Long Tail”, and it relates to manufacturing and distribution volumes. You can read about it in detail at Wikipedia.

Here’s the theory: if you have a relatively small store, it will be able to carry a smaller number of products due to physical and financial constraints. Typically, well-managed small stores will optimize their profit by ensuring those few product slots are filled with the most popular items. 

This works well for the shop owner, but the consumers are faced with a dearth of variety. A larger store might have more products, but it seems there are always more products that just happen to be less popular that don’t make it to the shelves. 

This is where online vendors such as Amazon can help. With their gigantic warehouses and massive participant base, they can afford to have infrequently-requested products ready for sale. 

If we were to graph this (at top), the most frequently sold products make up most of the left side of the chart (in green). But how can you get infrequently-sold products as you move to the right? 

This is what’s called, “the Long Tail”, referring to the skinny shape of the right side of the chart. Amazon, for example, would be able to take advantage of their size by actually selling items from the Long Tail. 

But even they can’t sell everything. 

This is where 3D printing can take over, because theoretically, a robustly functional 3D printer could produce anything, so long as the relevant 3D model existed. 

Of course, we’re stretching a bit here, because 3D printers cannot yet produce any arbitrary object. There are numerous constraints in material, size and pricing. Nevertheless, there are still many unique objects that can be produced. 

And these objects could be on the extreme right of the Long Tail. They could in fact be custom objects that by definition would exist only once. Custom objects, if placed on the Long Tail chart, would appear at the most extreme rightmost position. Perhaps even past that! 

Therefore, we could say that 3D printing is a way to find the end of the Long Tail. 

Long tail” by User:HuskyOwn work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

By Kerry Stevenson

Kerry Stevenson, aka "General Fabb" has written over 8,000 stories on 3D printing at Fabbaloo since he launched the venture in 2007, with an intention to promote and grow the incredible technology of 3D printing across the world. So far, it seems to be working!