A dental checkup this week revealed a crown that needs to be replaced. It’s a standard procedure – the dentist takes a series of impressions and sends them to an outside lab, which manufactures a custom mold, and then a tooth. The whole process takes two or three weeks.
Except my dental office now has a 3-D scanner, which captures a digital version of the crown with much greater accuracy and detail. They’re also experimenting with additive manufacturing (3-D printers that add successive layers to a base) and subtractive manufacturing (robotic routers that etch away material from an ingot). Soon they’ll be able to completely bypass the lab and create the entire crown in the office, while you wait.
Then I got home, and the latest issue of Science magazine had arrived, containing an article on Drug Manufacturing in a Fridge-Sized Box. A multinational team of scientists reports that they’ve built a prototype device that can synthesize and purify pharmaceuticals under continuous-flow conditions, rather than the batch processes used today.
“The authors have created an on-demand synthesis platform that can produce thousands of formulated, ready-to-use liquid drug doses per day. Currently, the end user can choose from four key drugs, but the drug catalog can be extended. The fully integrated machine is roughly the size of a refrigerator and contains individual synthesis, purification, and formulation modules. Once a drug is selected, the required synthesis steps are conducted automatically by guiding starting materials and reagents through a flow reactor network that is established within the machine for the selected drug. Complex, laborious, and time-consuming steps such as phase separation, precipitations, and crystallizations, which are required to get to the purified pharmaceutical, are all conducted in a fully automated fashion.”
“On-demand continuous-flow production of pharmaceuticals in a compact, reconfigurable system”, Science, Vol. 352, Issue 6286, May 6, 2016.
The prototype can synthesize lidocaine hydrochloride (a common dental anesthetic), plus the drugs marketed as Benadryl, Valium, and Prozac. That’s when it hit me – what’s happening here is very relevant to the world of marketing:
- If you’re in the dental lab business, selling one-off custom manufacturing services with a ten-day turnaround, your industry is about to be overturned by a machine the size of a microwave oven that can create equivalent (or better) products in minutes.
- If you sell pharmaceuticals, your marketing plan needs to encompass a new reality in which every medical and dental office contains a machine capable of synthesizing many common drugs on demand.
- Regardless of what vertical market you serve, if you make any kind of physical product, your industry is about to be disrupted by automated manufacturing.
It’s time to replace the old marketing funnel with a more accurate description of 21st-century commerce. The legacy “four Ps” model (price, product, promotion, and place) doesn’t empower your sales machine when the product is constantly shape-shifting to represent a whole new set of capabilities.
Yes, 3-D printers are also products that must be designed, built, and sold. And new markets will emerge for the “content” that drives these devices. Customers will still go through a “buyers journey” of discovery, consideration, and preference.
But at this point, it’s hard to say exactly what the product is. And how we’ll market it.