Although 3-D printing may revolutionize manufacturing at some future date, its progress has been marked by fits and starts and furor over 3-D printed plastic guns, hovering somewhere between the world of basement hobbyists and industrial-level engineering in the factories of Boeing and Ford, with relatively few general consumers taking advantage of the additive technology.
For companies like MakerBot, which offer desktop 3-D printers and scanners, bridging this gap continues to be a major concern. When will everyone feel that the ability to print plastic thingamabobs and bottle openers at home is as necessary as owning a cellphone?
In an attempt to cross over, or take a “step into the mainstream,” as Bre Pettis, CEO of MakerBot put it, MakerBot and the Home Depot announced a pilot program this week to bring MakerBot’s Replicator Desktop 3-D printers into a number of Home Depot stores, as well as online. This will be the first time the home supply giant will sell 3-D printers in-store. Twelve Home Depots in California, New York, and Illinois will have dedicated kiosks and staff to show off MakerBot’s capabilities.
The companies said in a statement that it hoped to demonstrate “the power and versatility of 3D printing in a DIY retail environment … to educate customers, who range from builders, architects and contractors to designers, landscapers and general consumers, on the benefits of 3D printing technology.”
But before there’s a 3-D printer in every home (in 10 years, some predict), consumers will have to first be schooled not only on how to use the gadget, but even to think of it as a possible aide for their home repair or modeling needs. For many, watching a Home Depot demonstration will be their first opportunity to see how 3-D printing really works.
For Home Depot, desktop 3-D printers seem a natural addition. The home repair chain is often the first stop when planning renovations or modeling projects, and the custom parts that some 3D printers are capable of producing could be useful to a certain type of savvy customer.
In a similar pilot program, announced in late July last year, the UPS Store, a subsidiary of UPS, began offering 3-D printer services, testing the uPrint SE Plus machine from Stratasys (a company that has a 47 percent 3D printing market share, and that bought MakerBot in June 2013) in a number of stores.* Chelsea Lee, a UPS Store spokeswoman, told me this week that the program, beginning in shop fronts outside Dallas, Silicon Valley, San Diego, New York, Chicago, and soon in Charlotte, came about after the company heard from a number of small business owners that they’d be interested in trying 3-D printing.
So, how did it work out? Lee says that the UPS Store was pleased by the significant consumer demand for 3-D printing. Such demand, in fact, that she tells me the UPS Store will be announcing expansion plans in the coming months.
Unlike MakerBot’s program with Home Depot, the UPS Store gave inventors, small businesses, and start-ups access to industrial-sized 3-D printers—printers that most people cannot afford, nor justify having in their home. Customers can bring in a file, ready to print, or consult with UPS Store workers to make an object from a simple sketch. With a UPS Store-printed iPhone case costing around $60 and a ball bearing around $20, the service is relatively accessible and affordable.
In fact, you might think that Home Depot has more ground to lose to 3-D printing than the UPS Store, given the printers are widely hyped to soon be creating everyone’s spare parts, pipes, and wire holders—the very goods that Home Depot sells. But apart from still needing to purchase 3-D printing materials from somewhere, there’s some PR benefit to demonstrating that a company, well versed in the more stone-age tools of hammers, nails, and chip board, is on the cutting edge. In the same vein, UPS’s incoming CEO was talking up its soon-to-be competitor, delivery drones, as recently as Monday.
And were there comparable benefits for the 3-D printer manufacturer, Stratasys? Bruce Bradshaw, the director of marketing at Stratasys, told me that he sees the pilot program as a great success.
But what about that perennial 3D printing question—will there be one in every home? Bradshaw told me that he thinks there will be, but not in the near term. “I’m not sure your mom is going to have one anytime soon,” he told me (although he doesn’t know my mom, a true gadget-fiend, who will likely have a 3-D printer before I do). Instead, he thinks, in the near future you’ll go to Home Depot when refitting your bathroom, and even if it doesn’t have the right PVC pipe, staff will be able to quickly print one that works perfectly.
Building relationships with stalwart businesses like the UPS Store and Home Depot help 3-D printer manufacturers market themselves as useful, innocuous construction and design assistants—a far cry from last year’s hysteria over being the tool of choice for crypto-anarchists creating 3-D printed plastic guns. Of course, once you buy your MakerBot from Home Depot, you can print whatever you want with it, within its capabilities—an exciting, but sort of intimidating possibility.
*Correction, July 16, 2014: This post originally misstated that a UPS pilot program offered 3-D printing services to customers. It is the UPS Store, a subsidiary of UPS, that is offering 3-D printing.