MakerBot Has Better Shot at 3D Print On Demand Success than Most Stores

IMG_1032This weekend I sought out the new MakerBot store on trendy Newbury Street in Boston’s Back Bay to ask some pointed questions about the reality of people off the street coming in to get their design files 3D Printed. The shop is so new, there was no address on my iPhone map app nor could I get the phone number from directory assistance. So I walked in the bitter cold up from Boston Common thinking I’d spot the newest brick and mortar entry into On Demand 3D Printing. And spot it I did – the long street level storefront has large windows showing off the spotless white minimalist décor that screams: “futurist products sold here”!

Scattered around the vast showroom were stations boasting MakerBot 3D Printers along with examples of the types of things that can be produced on the machines. In addition to a gothic cathedral façade and the usual dinosaurs, were cute holiday snowmen to coincide with all the festive cheer in the neighborhood.

But I was on an information-gathering mission so I sought out a salesperson to ask a question I feel is critical to 3D Printing for the masses. “How much help can you provide to someone bringing in a .stl file that doesn’t print correctly?” I asked. The salesperson, as I expected, told me that MakerBot does not provide design services, but as I elaborated on the heart of my problem, this resourceful employee tracked down a manager.

IMG_1029These guys speak 3D Printing and we had a terrific conversation on the challenges of taking a design file and optimizing it for 3D Printing. Of course, designs also have to take into account the specific machine that will print the physical object. IMHO, the trickiest part of making 3D Printing a true mainstream technology for the masses lies in the design for 3D Manufacturing step.

Take something directly from Thingiverse and the MakerBot store usually will have no issue printing it. But try to personalize or customize a design from the Internet of Things – which happens to be one of the main reasons to use 3D Printing in the first place – and it’s not guaranteed your design file will print properly. Sometimes it is easier to design from scratch, as you don’t know the skill level of the original designer. I’ve done both successfully and it’s not always as easy as it looks – or as the media will have you believe.

While the MakerBot team stopped short of promising to help with design issues, they did offer the ability to run files through “fix it” software that can find flaws in the design and automatically correct them. I also had the sense that since they were geeks at heart, a customer really could talk through issues and get some tips to solve problems.

But in my mind the MakerBot store’s team was a quantum leap from the idea that employees at Staples or FedEx Office will be 3D Printing customer designs anytime soon. The idea of someone walking into a 2D print shop and getting help in Design for 3D Printing will require significant employee training from these corporations eager to jump on the bandwagon. Given the unspoken issues with getting a customer design to work, MakerBot has a better shot than most 3D Print on Demand shops to make the new business model work. Perhaps there’s huge job opportunities coming for anyone with the right 3D Printing skills at these new stores, further evidence of how 3D Printing’s impact on the world is more social than technological.