3-D printing store: You dream it, take it home

A new retail space in Chicago promises to be the beginning of a revolution in 3-D manufacturing.

You conceptualize it. You design it. You create it. Then you take it home.

That’s the way it works at the 3D Printer Experience (3DPX), a new “experiential retail store” in downtown Chicago that aims to introduce the public to the possibilities of 3-D printing for the average consumer.

Since the 1,800-square-foot-space opened last week, curious patrons have been ambling up to the shop’s more than 20 high-tech machines, pressing buttons and producing plastic molds of everything from custom jewelry to scale models of their own heads within minutes.

"It's turning passive consumers into active creators,” explains Mike Moceri, the 21-year-old co-founder of 3DPX. “You empower someone when you give them the tools of creation.”

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Moceri, who co-owns the store with Julie Friedman, believes brick-and-mortar stores like 3DPX are a gateway for consumers to understand how the technology works.

"We're taking orders from artists, engineers, designers, anyone who wants to print out their designs,” he says. “Or you can just come in off the street, have your head scanned and then have it printed into a 3-D portrait and buy that."

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It could be the beginnings of a wave of similar retail outlets in the United States, according to analysts who see increased accessibility to 3-D printing as the future of digital manufacturing.

The printing works by first scanning a shape to obtain a series of digital cross sections mapped on a computer. After this file is uploaded, the machine then lays down ultra-thin layers one by one until a solid object materializes. Each layer of resin is fused together as they're built up based on the digitized graphic.

"People have all heard about 3-D printing, but until you’ve really seen it up close or touched the machines with your hand, it’s not the same," says Brian Jaffe, a Boston-based 3-D printing entrepreneur. "I see these kinds of stores popping up, and I think this is a natural progression."

Jaffe, who is studying for his M.B.A. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, likens the interactive 3-D printing outlets to the first mobile phone sales kiosks that began displaying cellular handsets in the 1990s.

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"We’d all heard about cellphones, but until there was a mobile phone store in your neighborhood where you could go in and hold these phones, most people weren’t going to buy one,” he said.

It’s the same idea at Moceri’s store on Chicago’s North Clark Street.

One popular piece of icebreaking hardware that greets most curious patrons inside is a custom-fabricated “scanning station” platform that Moceri compares to a Star Trek transporter. Curious people can walk in, stand on the rotating platform as a light beams over them for several seconds and then print out a 3-D bust of themselves within 20 minutes.

There’s also what Moceri calls a “design bar,” where people can use the computers on the show floor to create their own custom jewelry using an in-house application called Pendant Maker. The technology is so user-friendly, he says, that anyone can devise something cool.

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"We had a 3-year-old come in the other day, and she actually made one of the best pendants anybody has made so far after just playing around for a few minutes,” Moceri says.

As for how much it costs to print off items at the 3DPX location, that depends on the size and complexity of the desired object, the level of detail and the volume of construction material needed.

3-D portraits can cost between $25 for a sculpture about 1.5 inches tall and $115 for a 4-inch version.

The most expensive material for the final product ($1.80 per cubic centimeter) is nylon (used in the largest industrial machine in the store; it has better impact resistance), followed by acrylontrile butadiene styrene ($1.05/cc) and then polylactic acid ($0.90/cc).

"Making an item like a whistle on POA (polylactic acid) might cost something like $6,” Moceri said. “For the ABS (acrylontrile butadiene styrene) it would be a dollar, and then for the nylon it would be just above a dollar.”

Novices can also choose from a variety of standard objects off a menu — a comb or a 20-sided dice, for instance.

The big mission behind the store’s concept is to democratize “and demystify” manufacturing with open-source design, Moceri says, noting that some of the machinery in the shop is still prohibitively expensive to own. Current models of the machines costs thousands of dollars, and several professionals or students with specific projects in mind have already emailed files directly to 3DPX with their designs.

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"We’re actually the world’s first retail location that has an industrial-grade laser sintering machine, which costs around $250,000,” Moceri said. “Before, that level of tech was always behind closed doors” at places like the aerospace engineering firm Lockheed Martin.

Earlier in the week, one customer requested a customized trophy be produced in the industrial printer, known as the Formiga P110. Moceri is also building a prototype for a car in the Formiga P110 for an engineering student.

"The scale for that nylon concept car he printed off on that professional machine would be around $200 to $300, but if he were to do that normally, he’d have to go to an outside prototyping factory, and it would cost him around $30,000 to $50,000 to do,” he said.

While he acknowledged that 3-D printer stores have already opened, such as the MakerBot shop in New York and the 3D Printer Store in Denver, Moceri contends those outlets don’t provide the same depth of hands-on customer interaction with the machines as 3DPX does.

"They mostly offer the experience of purchasing the machines,” he said. “We sell the machines, too, but the unique interactive experience here is about designing and printing them off.”

3DPX offers daily workshops on topics such as an introduction to 3-D scanning to how to design your own iPhone case.

"We’ll be offering a ‘how to build your own 3-D printer’ class fairly soon,” Moceri adds.

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In the meantime, Jaffe, the Boston-based MIT student planning his own 3-D printing startup, has noticed that consumers are becoming ever more inventive with the products they’re making. He says that’s included everything from “malicious items like homemade guns” to sex toys.

Jaffe also predicts that costs for the devices will begin to drastically come down over the next decade. Not long ago, prices stood at around $1,300 for commercial equipment. Just recently, he learned a company out of Hong Kong was releasing a $200 model.

"I think these bricks-and-mortar stores are a big part of the educational process for people,” Jaffe said. A few years from now, he can foresee a future where many households will have a cheap, low-end 3-D printer at home, almost as a novelty item or rough model maker.

"Are adults right now going to be spending a lot of time interacting with these machines? I’m not sure about that,” he said. “But it’s really a very empowering technology, and the next generation of young people are growing up right now.”

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