In the not too distant future, 3-D printers may provide the public with anything from a whole new wardrobe, to meat, to furniture – and even human organs.
We aren’t there yet. But a few major retailers and brands, eager to keep pace with a potentially game-changing technology, and generate a bit of marketing buzz, have begun to explore this 3-D world.
One of those early experimenters is Hasbro, which plans to announce Monday a partnership with a 3-D printing company, Shapeways, to sell fan art inspired by its long-lasting toy line My Little Pony.
“We have been investigating 3-D printing for quite a while, as have many people,” said John Frascotti, chief marketing officer at Hasbro. “What 3-D printing truly empowers is the creation of artwork that maybe wouldn’t make sense for mass production, but it makes sense for a unique item.”
For this project, which Frascotti described as “mass customization,” the company will start with five artists whose work will be available for order online and printed in a colorful plastic polymer that Shapeways executives describe as feeling similar to sandstone. The designs must be cleared with Hasbro to ensure they are not obscene, violent or hateful, but otherwise, the artists largely have free rein. Even the price for the figurines will be set by the artists.
The advent of 3-D printing has created enormous potential for sales, but it also creates a raft of new opportunity for theft, especially of intellectual property. Why go out and buy a doll if you can just print one yourself? But instead of snapping a tight lid over its characters, Hasbro’s collaboration with Shapeways may extend the reach of its trademarks while keeping control of what is associated with the brand.
“Instead of trying to prohibit it, they’re enabling it, and I think that’s awesome,” said Peter Weijmarshausen, chief executive of Shapeways. “By embracing this new technology, it’s good for everybody. The end-user is happy because he or she gets what they want, and we don’t get into a fight.”
While 3-D printers are largely new to the public, retailers and other companies have been using them behind the scenes for years. Target has a few at its headquarters in Minneapolis. They are about the size of a large refrigerator and are used by the company’s design team to make prototypes. Frascotti said Hasbro has some industrial 3-D printers for similar purposes.
Home Depot has been selling 3-D printers by MakerBot on its website for several months, and last week it announced it would begin selling them at stores in a few major cities like New York and Los Angeles. These printers, which use a plastic derived from corn, start at $1,375. When a MakerBot prints, it smells like waffles, according to the company’s chief executive, Bre Pettis.
These printers for the home are often about the size of a microwave oven and can be used to make items like fashion accessories, utensils and replacement parts for bicycles or musical instruments.
Sucharita Mulpuru, an analyst at Forrester Research, said many of these retail forays into consumer 3-D printing are more about “novelty and excitement” than about a serious shift in business models.
Mulpuru said “3-D printers today are like the Apple IIe,” referring to an early Apple computer. “It had the green screen and was all DOS commands – not the interface we’re used to today.
“It’s Chapter 1, or the prologue, to the home 3-D printing world,” she continued, “but I do think it will transform our lives in the future.”