Two years after testing 3-D printing service centers in Europe, office supply and services giant Staples is trying the concept in America, with two 3-D printing "experience centers" in New York and Los Angeles. The idea is to educate consumers and small businesses about 3-D printing and more easily facilitate its use.
The centers—which opened inside the Fifth Avenue and Studio City stores in the last month—are in partnership with 3D Systems, which is providing the design, scanning, and printing hardware and software for occasional use or to try out before purchasing. Staples offers assistance from 3-D printing experts and eventually plans more such centers.
"Part of our brand is to help small businesses market themselves," says Damien Leigh, Staples' senior vice president of business services. "3-D printing is an emerging technology, and most small-business customers have read about it in the media but don’t know how to access it. So, we’re creating a market for 3-D printing as a service—helping them understand the process and how they can apply it to their business, then giving them the means to design and print sophisticated renderings, without having to make major capital investments."
The 3-D printing marketplace has opened up around the world, thanks to declining costs of 3-D printers and services, increasing user-friendliness of the technology, and rising popularity of the DIY/Maker movement and hackerspaces. Staples decision for an overseas test first had less to do with the exploding European 3-D printing market than an opportunity presenting itself with MCor Technologies. Other conglomerates are attempting similar approaches. For example, The UPS Store is collaborating with Stratasys for an on-site 3-D printing service in Israel.
However, Staples is the first major retailer to offer consumer and prosumer 3-D printers, which it does online and in 150 of its 1,500 U.S. stores. They range in price from $1,300 to $5,000, and printing sizes from 5.5 to 12 cubic inches in a range of materials: ABS (petroleum-based plastic), PLA (biodegradable polymer), castable material for dental and jewelry-making molds, and gypsum-based powder. In addition to entry-level machines, the experience center provides access to a $60,000 professional full-color 3-D printer.
Customers can print larger, more complex items off-site on a 3D Systems' $1 million set-up through a cloud-printing service offered in-store, which are then shipped to offices or home. The system prints up to 1.5 square meter objects, with larger models made by connecting those printed components.
Customers can use in-store design software or 3-D print-ready files from their own computers or file sites, like Cubify.com and Thingiverse.com. They can also capture their own images using 3-D photo booths or scanners for personalized products, like figurines (think wedding-cake toppers) or smartphone cases. In fact, 3D Systems' senior research engineer Scott Turner used the technology to craft the rings and cake topper for his own wedding.
Will Sturgeon, 3D Systems' retail training manager, sums up the process: "We can provide every solution from start to finish, seamlessly, or we can provide one or more of those elements with equipment or software you already own."