Almost a year ago, the UPS Store in San Diego was the first to launch retail 3-D printing, available to anyone. The experiment was targeted at small businesses and startups giving them access to a 3-D designer and printer in part to assist in building their products. But how did it work out?
The good news is that putting a 3-D printer in a retail store, right next to the regular one-dimensional copy machines, actually works. As such, the company will be announcing expansion plans in the fall to put more 3-D printers in stores across the country. Its expectation that the technology wasn’t just a fad is proving true, but it’s also learned a few lessons over the last year.
For a store that makes money mainly by shipping physical goods from one place to another, it could be shortsighted to bring in machines that help alleviate that need. But it turns out that offering the new service had no affect on existing services.
"The 3-D print sector increased by 21% between 2012 and 2013," says the UPS Store's Small Business Technology leader Daniel Remba. "The growth in our stores’s sales of 3-D print services has been in line with that trend, and continues to increase as more consumers become aware of our 3-D print offering." In fact, it has actually acted as a gateway to offering small businesses other existing printing and mailbox services.
The initial assumption at the UPS Store was that small businesses and startups would create onetime 3-D projects—otherwise why wouldn't they buy their own machine? But the reality has been different. "We’ve seen people from all types of different industries with the common denominator being people making prototypes of new products," Remba says. And like most people who make things, they iterate. A ton. So many customers are frequent repeats, printing a design, taking it home, and coming back again to refine it.
Interestingly, the company has also seen some people who already have access to 3-D printers at their office, but the wait to use it is too long. These people especially are ones who benefit from having the professional 3-D printer available outside their office in a retail environment.
"I can say we certainly learned we have some sophisticated customers," says Remba. "We thought we’d have more customers needing design services, and [demand for] that’s been lower than we expected." Apparently, there are many more 3-D-printing-savvy consumers in Southern California than the company thought. The UPS Store will continue to offer design services anyway.
There are a lot of different 3-D printer choices available. Picking the right one that balances price and capabilities can be challenging. The UPS Store uses the Stratasys uPrint SE Plus—a ~$20,000 unit which looks at home alongside their other professional printing gear.
Remba says they also get lots of inquiries about home printers from customers that come into the store.
"There’s a big difference between home printers and professional printers and it’s up to us to explain to our customers those differences," Remba says. "How there’s a lot of maintenance that has to be done and that quality of the prints [on a home printer] aren’t always what you’re expecting." The company doesn’t have any plans to switch manufacturers and says it has been happy with the results the current printers have provided.