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Will 3D Printing Be Staples' Field of Dreams?

By Gene Marks | Forbes

“If you build it, they will come.”

It worked for Ray Kinsella.  Maybe, just maybe, it’ll work for Staples too.  The office supply company is now bringing their brand recognition to the field of 3D printing.  They’re building it.  And now they’re hoping that entrepreneurs will respond. Staples is a client of mine and I was paid to moderate a panel last week in New York about this new offering.

3D printing is not new.  The problem is that to date it’s not been very sexy and no one is familiar with the players.

Take for example ProtoCAM, a small company near Allentown, Pennsylvania who is also a client of mine.  Since 1994, they’ve been creating 3D prototypes of parts that their customers then use in their final designs of production equipment. It’s not very sexy work.  ProtoCAM’s engineers and technicians use complex computer applications and very expensive, custom made machines that oftentimes take days to pop out molds and models.  They do this using cast urethane models, rapid injection molding, high-quality metal castings and roto-casting.  “We’ve always been at the leading edge using the latest stereolithography resins to provide our customers with the best possible alternatives for their rapid prototyping needs,” the company’s website says.

Look, I didn’t say this was exciting, did I?  And if you really want an alternative to counting sheep, try visiting one of the many Design2Part shows around the country that feature the products and services of other companies just like ProtoCAM.  Or checkout the next 3D Printer World Expo which is scheduled for 2015 in Burbank, California, following a successful event this past month in New York.  You’ll find that many of these companies are, like ProtoCAM, not exactly newcomers to the world of 3D printing.  They’ve been doing this for years.

We’re told that soon people will be “printing” houses, fingers, ears, parts for your car, parts for your factory equipment, food, pharmaceuticals.  3D printing will be creating new industries, generating billions in wealth and forever changing our lives. But even though 3D printing is projected to be a $10.8 billion industry by 2021, most of us aren’t yet affected.  So when will 3D printing become as pervasive and commonplace as just…printing?  How can entrepreneurs with an idea but little capital get in on the action?

Enter Staples.  And 3D Systems.

Last week, Staples announced a partnership with 3D Systems to provide 3D printing services at two of its retail locations.   Customers can bring their 3D print-ready files to have them printed at Staples’ stores on 5th Avenue in Manhattan, N.Y. and Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, Calif.

The idea is this:  there’s no need to buy a 3D printer (they sell those too) just like there’s no need to buy a regular printer, scanner or copy machine. Just come into the service center and Staples will take care of the job for you.  They’ll have the equipment there. They’ll have people who specialize in 3D printing available.  They’ll be ready to go for any of your 3D printing needs, just like they’re ready for any of the jobs you already bring into the copy and print center.  To demonstrate at our panel event, Staples displayed models of phone cases, chess pieces, figurines and jewelry that they can print in the store.

“We believe that literally millions of small businesses and customers could benefit from the technology,” said Damien Leigh, senior vice president of business services for Staples. “We wanted to educate businesses so they can get involved with 3D printing at a fraction of the cost because right now they don’t understand it.”

So give credit where credit is due.  Staples is bringing their brand to 3D printing. The company is investing in this technology.  They’re hoping to expand these services nationwide.  They’re training their people to understand the intricacies of 3D printing.  They’re partnering with a well-known company in the industry. They’re buying equipment and promoting the service.  They’re putting everything into place. Like Ray Kinsella, they’ve built the field.  And now all they need is…customers.  Entrepreneurs.  Business people with ideas.

Will they come?  I have no idea.  Where’s James Earl Jones when you need him?

Besides Forbes, Gene Marks writes daily for The New York Times and weekly for Inc.com.