It's fairly well known that big name industrial companies such as General Electric are embracing 3-D printing. It seems much lesser known, however, that entertainment giant Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS) has also been investing considerable resources into using current 3-D printing technology, as well as developing its own tech.
We'll focus on Disney's use of current 3-D printing technology here, while a second article will home in on "Papillion," which is the really cool 3-D printing technology Disney is developing that has potentially vast applications.
Staying ahead of the technological curve -- again
Disney has been involved in 3-D printing for many years -- well before the technology became "hot" within the past couple of years. This isn't surprising, as staying ahead of the technological curve is one of the core pillars upon which Disney has build its massively successful empire, and richly rewarded shareholders along the way. Not only has Disney's stock been firing on all cylinders recently -- it returned more than 41% in the past year versus the market's nearly 23% -- it's also crushed the market's returns over the 10-year period, returning 249% to the market's 99%.
We should expect to see the world's largest media company's involvement in 3-D printing expand and deepen. Last fall, Disney Chairman Andy Bird said at a media summit: "I think every home within 10 years -- probably less than that -- will have its own 3-D printer, just as many homes now have a 2-D or laser printer." When a chair of a company believes such a thing, you can be sure that company is focusing on how it can best position itself to capitalize on such a scenario.
3-D printing as a tool to collaborate with consumers
Disney has largely been using 3-D printing in a different manner and, thus far, with a different end goal from that of most manufacturers, which makes sense given Disney occupies an entirely different business.
Manufacturers have largely been using 3-D printing in their prototyping, though an increasing number continue to expand their use to include production applications. The goals are straightforward: Decrease the new product cycle time, increase innovation (because some product designs can't be made using traditionally manufacturing techniques), and increase production efficiency.
Meanwhile, Disney -- as well as select other consumer-focused companies -- has been using 3-D printing as a tool to "involve loyalists in the production process, therefore bridging the gap between consumer and company," as well put by iMediaConnection. Essentially, the consumer becomes a participant with the company, rather than being the "target" of marketing efforts by the company. This is an important distinction, especially among the many folks who view much of what passes as "target marketing" as rather offensive.
Here are two examples of how Disney recently used 3-D printing at its theme parks:
2012: Disney introduced its "Carbon-Freeze Me" experience
Visitors to Disney's theme parks in the summer of 2012 could have their likenesses put onto Han Solo's body in the famous carbon freezing scene from The Empire Strikes Back, the second of the Star Wars films to be released. The soon-to-be-immortalized in a famous movie scene visitor was scanned and the final product was 3-D printed and mailed to his/her home. Importantly, the process only involved about 10 minutes of the consumer's time.
2013: Disney goes for an encore -- visitors can become Stormtroopers
The process was the same here, with the visitor's mug now being put on to a 7.5-inch Stormtooper figurine. The $99.95 price tag would seem high to most of us, though I'm sure many of the Star Wars fanatics out there didn't blink an eye.
If Disney had enough takers for these offerings, I'd imagine they likely turned a profit. However, I'd guess the company would have deemed their efforts "successful" even if these offerings just broke even. That's because these "experiences" – Disney's word, not mine, and it's an important distinction from "products" -- surely generated warm and fuzzy feelings about Disney in the minds of many of the folks who now have Star Wars' characters figurines with their likenesses on them adorning their homes. Further, participating in such an "experience" certainly strengthened many of these people's positives feelings about Star Wars, likely making some of them more apt to spend money on additional Star Wars offerings in the future.
Given Disney's immense collection of well-loved characters, can you see the possibilities? People with 3-D scanners and printers in their homes will surely be able to license the rights to print such figurines in the future. The possibilities go way beyond these figurines to include toys, piggy banks, etc. based on Disney characters. (This scenario also illustrates why some companies are apprehensive about consumers having 3-D printers in their homes, as "character piracy" becomes more of a potential issue.)
Foolish final thoughts
Investors who need yet another reason to view Disney as a solid long-term investment can add its staying ahead of the curve with respect to 3-D printing technology to the list.