Excited about the potential of 3D printing but not quite ready to invest in a printer for your home? Then you are just the market that Staples is looking to woo as it moves into the 3D printing space.
In a partnership with Ireland-based commercial 3D printer manufacturer Mcor Technologies, the office chain megastore will be launching the "Staples Easy 3D" service. Through the company website, customers upload design files for printing and can then opt to either pick them up at the local store or have them delivered. The service is scheduled to launch in early 2013 in The Netherlands and Belgium, and plans to bring it to U.S. stores are surely in the works.
If you're curious why these two companies make good bedfellows, the service will utilize Mcor's IRIS 3D printer, which cuts regular A4 office paper to form 0.1mm layers. Photorealistic color printing of each sheet is possible in over a million colors with resolutions of 5760 x 1440 x 508dpi thanks to Mcor's True Color technology, according to the company's website. Each sheet is then glued together to form a compact model with a hardness close to wood. The surrounding support paper is then removed from the object by the technician.
Here's the promotional video for the service (note it loops ad infinitum):
It's important to point out that this promo is somewhat misleading. It gives the impression that all you have to do is upload a picture of the object you want printed, but the IRIS printer requires a CAD file format. A single 2D image doesn't translate into a 3D scan, unless a sophisticated object recognition system was used. Now, a series of images can be used to build 3D models using the free 123D Catch app from AutoDesk, for instance, but it doesn't appear as if Staples is adding anything like this to the program, at least at this stage of the game.
On the surface, this move by the office supply chain store could be interpreted in two different ways. On one hand, it may look like a natural evolution of 2D paper printing into 3D paper printing, now that the cost of 3D printers has decreased and demand for the services have increased. This is feasible considering that the company has found a clever way to extend the utility of a product they already carry, paper. In addition, Mcor claims that the IRIS printer has the highest color capability and lower operating cost of any commercial printer, making a low-cost risk to test the service with customers.
On the other hand, one could interpret this announcement as a desperation grab from a staple (pun intended) in yet another industry being made obsolete by the digitization of just about everything and online superstores like Amazon.
Regardless of why Staples is starting the program, it will likely be a good thing for 3D printing as it will be yet another avenue for the masses to get into this emerging technology. In fact, 3D printing "photo booths" are starting to show up across the globe, with other large companies like Disney experimenting with what the tech can do for its brand. Furthermore, we are still far from a time when there's a 3D printer in every home, so this is an ideal window for a company like Staples to gauge interest and perform some market research. After all, the stores do carry regular printers as well, why not 3D printers in a few years?
In a few years time, the landscape of 3D printing will surely look much different, and I'm sure we'll look back at this time and wonder why there was so much trepidation about a no-brainer technology. Until then, each tiny step that 3D printing takes gets longer in stride, and surely it will be only a matter of time before it is in a full gallop.
To get a sense of how realistic the finished printed objects look, check out this short video that shows what the IRIS printer can produce: