Three-dimensional printing, with its potential to create everything from architectural models to bespoke furniture to habitable structures, has become an increasingly useful resource for the design and construction community. Still, the technology is relatively new to the average consumer. That could change. Last week, Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, launched a Web-based 3D printing store that includes more than 200 print-on-demand products. Although it’s not the first online platform to offer 3D printing—Shapeways and Thingiverse already provide similar services—Amazon has a massive, established customer base. And though its store doesn't yet include architectural models or parts, the company says it is open to expanding into the building industry.
“We are … seller-driven,” says Amazon spokesman Erik Fairleigh. “If architecture firms came to us with ideas, that’s something we’d be willing to explore. As we evolve, we intend to work with more designers and manufacturers.”
Though he couldn’t comment on whether Amazon has partnerships with architects in the works, Fairleigh says it’s possible that firms, design studios, and manufacturers will begin selling products, such as residential building models, custom furnishings, and replacement parts, through the site in the near future.
Jerry Ropelato, CEO of WhiteClouds, one of several 3D printing partners to sell through Amazon’s store, says he is encouraging the retailer to offer architectural models, a cornerstone of his South Ogden, Utah–based business. But profitability remains a concern for sellers on the Web-based platform known for discounted prices, particularly because consumers may not grasp the value offered from the ability to create highly customizable products with 3D printing technology.
Still, Ropelato says, Amazon offers exposure that his company couldn’t get by selling products on its own website. “We would look at Amazon.com as an additional sales channel with huge volumes of visitors,” he says.
The future of 3D printing is only beginning to take shape. Amazon’s two-pronged approach considers the use of at-home consumer printers for basic parts and models as well as the presence of third-party service providers, such as WhiteClouds, whose industrial equipment can craft more sophisticated items. Not addressed by Amazon is the possibility that consumers may opt out of an at-home printer and may also want to avoid shipping time and costs by having items printed locally at the likes of Office Depot, Staples, and UPS, which offer 3D printing services at select locations.
This iteration of Amazon’s 3D printing store is built around items that can be customized for traditional home delivery. But known for its near-obsession with shortening delivery time, the retailer, which also sells 3D printers and CAD software, is open to the possibility of offering templates that can be printed on consumers’ personal machines. If more consumers purchase at-home 3D printers, the time between the purchase and receipt of a physical product will be nearly eliminated.
Michael Armani and David Jones, cofounders of M3D, which will begin shipping its consumer-focused, $349 Micro 3D printers in February, say that nothing replaces the satisfaction of printing something right away. The duo won’t be selling the product through Amazon because they are still fulfilling orders received earlier this year through a Kickstarter campaign.
“One nice feature [printing architectural models at home] is being able iterate designs and visualize them sooner,” Jones says. “That’s something a lot of consumers haven’t been exposed to.”
Amazon is still in the nascent stages of launching its 3D printing business, but it’s likely that the online retail giant, along with other major retailers such as Wal-Mart, will have a hand in shaping how the new technology is delivered to mainstream. Whether the general public embraces it remains to be seen.