The MCOR Iris 3D printer is set to be adopted by Staples as part of its in-store 3D printing services, set to roll out early 2013. (Image courtesy of MCOR)
It started with garage hobby projects and high-minded academic experiments, but with big companies like Staples announcing plans to offer 3D printing services on-demand, the futuristic fabrication machines are pushing their way into the mainstream.
Staples announced last week it is planning to outfit a number of its European stores with commercial-class 3D printers, allowing customers to affordably order fabrication of objects and products that would normally have to be assembled and shipped to them.
“Customized parts, prototypes, art objects, architectural models, medical models and 3D maps are items customers need today,” Wouter Van Dijk, president of the Staples Printing Systems Division in Europe, said in [a] release.
Users would upload product designs online to be printed in-store and picked up, much like Staples currently does with business cards.
Staples says that after debuting in the northern European countries, the service will be “rolled out quickly to other countries.”
Stores in the Netherlands and Belgium would be the first to receive the machines in early 2013. No word on pricing, but Staples promises using the 3D printers will be low-cost.
Researchers and enthusiasts have been working on 3D printing for years now, all with the goal of creating a machine that can in turn create just about anything a user wants. While a 2D printer uses ink and paper to make copies of documents, a 3D printer uses raw materials like plastic, metals, and ceramics to mould and shape a product according to a design supplied by an engineer.
Early 3D printers could only make objects like toys, models, or simple tools, but they have since advanced to make fairly complex and detailed products like replacement parts for appliances, or even most recently, simple electronic components.
Enthusiasts have been touting 3D printing as the ultimate technology to disrupt modern consumer culture, as projects like Fab@Home would aim to put desktop-sized 3D printers in people’s homes, allowing them to simply fabricate the products they want rather than purchasing them from stores.
For now, desktop 3D printers are still fairly expensive, with cheaper models running $2000 to $3000, and the designs are still somewhat limited, so the retail revolution may yet be a ways off. More practical uses for the 3D printers could include fast creation of prototypes for would-be inventors.
Traditional corporations are getting into the mix as well, though, as with Staples’s announcement, as well as a move from HP to start selling 3D printers made by Stratasys.
On the opposite side of the the size spectrum, researchers have also developed an application of 3D printing methods for constructing whole buildings. Prof. Behrokh Khoshnevis with the Viterbi engineering school at USC developed a process called contour crafting, which is designed to fabricate walls and structures complete with rebar and plumbing inserted into concrete. Some models of the process are even designed to construct an entire building in a single run, with possible applications for space exploration.
Whatever role 3D printing plays in the future, it will certainly be a big part of public consciousness.