In this series, we looked at what it means to be antifragile and whether or not 3D printing can make a business antifragile. However, can 3D printing be antifragile as a good or an industry?
Antifragility is a concept that suggests that a system can get through a crisis or chaos and become stronger when it ends. What doesn’t kill you basically makes you stronger.
Many industries are considered cyclical, with their performance depending on where we are in the business cycle. The classic example is the airline industry, where many customers will delay long flights and vacations when the economy is perceived as “bad”. This in turn leads the performance of airline stocks and the total number of flights to be correlated with sentiment about the economy and the economy itself.
Meanwhile, other stocks and businesses, such as debt collection, may actually do better in a downturn. At the level of goods and consumption choices, industries and goods are classified as elastic and inelastic. Elastic products show drastic changes in demand when factors such as prices change. The demand for inelastic goods is (partially) resistant to price changes and other factors.
Classic examples of inelastic goods are utilities or items like salt. The paragon example of elastic products are luxury items, such as handbags, in which purchases can easily be delayed or money can easily be diverted to other more necessary purchases.
Now we live in a strange time where a class of people is essentially diverse enough that their spending remains insulated from the roller coaster that is the business cycle. However, generally speaking, it can be said that there are cyclical stocks and industries and inelastic and elastic goods.
Fickle consumers, fashion risk and substitutes
At the same time, we can also see that business performance is generally experiencing higher ups and downs than in the past. The world is more competitive. Trends spread faster and consumers are more fickle. Thus, we can see that there are a lot of fashion risks, in which companies are either much more popular than expected and are unable to meet demand, or they end up with large unsold inventory.
A pound of beef now rivals a pound of tofu and an ounce of mock beef, as well as a burger delivered to your door, a premium burger bar around the corner, and your Netflix subscription. There are many other substitutes and activities to divert our attention and spending to. We can be immediately satiated in many ways. Impulsively, in the next five minutes, I can buy a pizza, travel insurance, an umbrella, a pair of $400 Hogan sneakers, a $0.20 rubber duck, some artwork, or a $23,000 Compact Portable Bike by Hermès.
Asset Heavy or Guerrilla Trade
The spending options are limitless and the goods and activities are ready to satiate us ever more briefly. Inditex can design a new item and introduce it in one of its 2,000 Zara stores in less than 10 days. This company tracks demand closely and relies on this information and short supply lines to quickly deliver new variants or restock popular products. The company designs everything itself, runs much of its own logistics and supply chain software, and reduces fashion risk by being timely and fashionable. Meanwhile $10 billion retailer Shein has no stores. The company doesn’t design anything and just buys in bulk.
Essentially, each of these companies bypassed fashion risk. Inditex has done this in an “asset-heavy” way, developing technology and practices to match demand and production, while creating better SKUs that meet consumer needs. Shein, on the other hand, brings in millions of eyeballs to see images and then purchases the items once the consumer has purchased them. You could never build what Inditex is, but you could be the next Shein, or maybe just the Shein of lawn chairs, if you wanted to.
Port strikes in one area of the world, like Long Beach or Guangzhou, can throw a wrench into the workings of world trade, while a ship stuck in a channel disrupts everything. Currently, air travel in the UK is a mess as they could not anticipate such a rapid recovery in air travel. Global shipping was stretched and saw huge price increases as many goods went unordered. Then, many more consumer electronics were ordered, and spending was then shifted to other industries, resulting in fewer goods being sold.
Shocks seem to be more common and also spread faster and wider in a fragile and interconnected world. We are more interdependent but also more divided than ever. Is there anything else going on?
Well, we may be entering a phase of irreversible ecological collapse and resource scarcity that will bring famine and wars to the poorest parts of the world. And one more thing: the Pax Americana that has been the world order since World War II is being challenged by China. This will cause supply chain disruptions as both nations will want to become more independent, especially in high-tech warfare. Financial assets will also be increasingly disrupted by nationalist interference, politics, embargoes, etc., leading to ever greater volatility, especially in equities, but also in storage and transportation.
Shocks and demand
So. we have corporations that build unassailable fortresses and others that engage in guerrilla capitalism and attention arbitrage. We have many products and services that cater to an increasingly volatile audience that has many more substitutes and immediate access to many more options. Some things are elastic, some things inelastic, while in some areas demand follows the business cycle and some things do well when business is bad. The shocks also reverberate around the world. What to think of such a world?
A very obvious trend is that there will be more and more dramatic mismatches between supply and demand. On a macro level, but also in the number of green jerseys set to be sold in Denmark in June, we will see more disruption and bigger missed bets on everything from raw materials to high-end finished goods. Your retailer, distributor, store, website will all struggle to match price, quantity and product with rapidly changing demand. Generally, there are two potentially effective solutions: to be the king of asset-rich vertical integration that insulates itself from demand shocks through intelligence and structure, or simply having no inventory and instead focus on agriculture.
And what is the best recipe people have found? Resilience. Yes, the next container delay, currency devaluation or new trend can kill you. Hold fast. You might be more resilient against more shocks. It’s a bit nihilistic to me. Sure, seat belts are a good idea, but if we know that every car ride will have a near miss, we should find something better. A fire extinguisher is a good idea, but it’s a bit of a targeted solution. If it fails once, you may not be around to tell the tale. How best to respond to this increasingly inflammable world, filled with disruptions and mismatches of supply and demand? Stay tuned.
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