3D Printing Goes Mainstream Retail

Just another day at UPS: Photocopy the ol' resume, ship back shoes to Zappos, print a car part.
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UPS

About a month ago, a UPS store in eastern San Diego started offering a new service: 3D printing. Six weeks ago, store owner Burke Jones says, "I didn't know anything about 3D printing."

"I'd love to take credit for the idea because it's been really successful, but the truth is UPS came up with it," he adds. "They wanted to test the market." Last week, UPS rolled out another 3D printer, at a shop in Northwest DC, and it plans to open up four more over the next few months, at locations that have yet to be finalized.

Since the printer arrived at his store (a uPrint SE Plus), Jones has faced a pretty steep learning curve, he says, experimenting with the technology right alongside his clientele, who range from basement tinkerers looking to test some far-fetched idea to big businesses whose engineers just need to prototype something quickly and the company's equipment is otherwise occupied. Those are the easy jobs, Jones says, "They call us up and say I have an [STL] file and I need to print three of them." No problem.

Jones doesn't want to give anyone's ideas away, but he's seen people come in and print things ranging from "pet-feeding apparatuses to high-tech gadgets you attach to your smartphone." Several people have come in needing a car part, such as the little plastic gizmos you used to pull to unlock a manual door. "There was a guy who had some old cars and those had broken off and he wanted those," Jones says. It's not exactly cheap -- something as simple as a ball bearing can cost $15 and prices go up from there -- but for companies trying to get a quick prototype, that can be well within the budget for a project. 

3D printing is not unlike the normal old-fashioned 2D printing process, according to Jones. Say someone wants to print business cards. She'll come in with a rough idea of what she's looking for. One of the staff members will begin asking questions: What color did you have in mind? What kind of paper do you like? How do you feel about this font? Then you'll print out a first-go, and it'll be close but not perfect, and you'll improve it from there.

For those who come in with an idea for a 3D object, they'll come in and work with Jones and an engineer he's hired, Tei Newman-Lehman, and, "between the three of us, we get your idea on the paper." (Newman-Lehman, Jones says, used to design airplane parts for the military, but, "with sequestration and stuff, he's now doing this. But he's got a degree in nuclear engineering. I mean, that's a little overkill, but he's happy.") And then from paper to software to printer, the object transitions from idea to a physical fact.

"I've been in the printing business for a good solid 15 years, and it's a similar process initially, it's just that when we hit the print button, it does a different thing."

"That's the part that I get to enjoy -- to watch people go through the process of the birth of their idea," Jones says, "You should see their faces! When they see their part, it's like, it's amazing. It's not like they're an engineer. We've had many engineers come in and many doctors come in. And they come in with files that are perfect and they print perfectly and they get exactly what they expect. But other people, come in and they're like, in a couple of days or a week, they're holding their part, and it's a magical moment."

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"My parents are going to get me a comma for my birthday someday," Jones jokes, "because I tend to just ramble on in a stream of consciousness." (UPS)

It's this process, from idea to object, that excites Jones. "It is astounding to me, as a 51-year-old, that I can literally take my idea, if I was willing to put in the hours today, I could take an idea out of my head, or out of somebody's head, and by the end of the day I could have a hard plastic prototype in their hand."

For Jones, the technical capacity of 3D printing is inspiring him to think differently. "It could literally change our daily perceptions, change our lives. Because, who knows? We don't know what we haven't thought of yet. Just the thought process -- that I can do that --stimulates a part of my brain that is more creative than it was six weeks ago."

One of Jones's favorite customers is a team of two students, old friends who grew up together, who got a grant to work together to build a robotic hand. "They're so funny; it's kinda like the Big Bang Theory -- you know, they make jokes that nobody else gets."

"They're really good guys," he continues, "and they're just really smart. And I like them. And it kind of gives me hope, because, you know, I don't interact with those people that much. They're just uber smart guys. They have this big plan to ultimately get it so reacts to your skin.

"You know," he adds, "their dreams are different from my dreams." But Jones, with his machine, is helping to get them there.

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The printer (UPS)



H/t Clive Thompson

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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