Staples brings 3D printing services to the High Street

It seems that the well-known High Street stationery supplier Staples is having a tough time. It has plans to close over 10% of it's stores in the US alone over the next 2 years.

To help combat this it is strengthening it's e-commerce division which is probably not a surprise.

However, what is a surprise is that you cannot only buy 3D printers from the business but it is now adding 3D printing to it's copy shop offering.  Although Staples has tested this idea in Europe it appears to be primarily a US based venture, at least for now.

For those unfamiliar with the process it is possible to feed a virtual 3D design created on a PC into a machine that then 'prints' it creating virtually any object, slice by slice, in a range of materials.

The whole idea of 3D printing has received much press over recent years. It is possible to buy what can be broadly considered a 'desk top' machine.  You can then print your own objects and designs at a press of a button without the need for tooling or costly manufacturing processes.  

There are limitations of course, such as size, material and surface finish.  It is also relatively costly per item as you are making one item at a time but it is certainly easy to see why it is an appealing concept. Furthermore, it is a pretty well tried and tested technology with design companies, prototypers, universities and big business having used it for some time now to make prototypes and products for review and testing purposes.

The Staples story is however, perhaps the first time anyone has put their money where their mouth is.  They are bringing this device and concept into the mainstream uniquely giving ready access to the general public.

Could this be the beginning of something big that saves Staples and that brings invention, product design and manufacturing to masses? Or will it prove to be something a little too pioneering that won't generate the demand it needs or will become obsolete almost before it gains traction?

Accepting that the copy shop is doing well for them, experience in the UK at least suggests serious time and investment will be required to prove the demand.  

This facility is well-known to those who need it and virtually unknown to everyone else.  It feels unlikely that a significant number of us are so interested in this facility that we'll buy and learn a 3D software package at home, even if it does lead to novelty of having our design created in 3D while we peruse pens and ink cartridges.

Perhaps a more realistic idea might be for Staples to offer a range of products to choose from, much like a tattoo parlour. Appealing from a retail perspective, high individuality, easy strorage and no inventory.  An even more interesting development might be to team this technology with 3D laser scanning enabling a user to present something at the shop to be copied.  This could lead to some interesting results although could also create an irresistible draw after a night on the town.

So it feels like location or cost that will make existing users change supply and the hope that they can create sufficient need in others.  Sounds like a tall order. 

What is clear however, is whatever the result, it is a brave move and will be interesting to watch.