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Is the high-street ready for 3D printers?

Maplin have made one small step for the high street not a giant leap for personalised home manufacturing, argues Andrew Walker

Twitter was buzzing recently with newspapers, bloggers and geeks trumpeting the news that UK high street retailer Maplin was to start selling “the first 3D printer for use in the home”. 

Has 3D printing finally ‘arrived’ for ordinary consumers or is it just media hype? I visited the world’s largest 3D printing store, iMakr in London, to find out if the 3D printing revolution is coming to your home anytime soon.

Sylvain Preumont founded iMakr Store in April 2013, a year after starting iMakr.VC, an investment fund for 3D print start-ups. It’s a brave move to open a cutting edge consumer shop during difficult economic times, but Preumont’s view is that new frontiers like 3D printing aren’t affected by slow consumer spending. 

He believes the challenge for new industries isn’t encouraging people to buy, it’s changing how they think. That requires a degree of enthusiasm on behalf of the consumer, which explains why an electronics hobbyist store like Maplin is getting in on the act before a more conventional retailer like PC World.

3D printers are a new kind of product and Preumont thinks it’s early days to declare them a conventional high street norm. “People are buying their fifth or sixth PC but we’re only seeing people buy their first, maybe second, 3D printer,” he says. 

But he says most consumers- usually small businesses- are buying their second 3D printers because their staff are tired of queuing-up to use the office 3D printer, not to replace their existing model. That shows growing demand, but it’s a long way from the high street popularity of technology products like external hard drives, combo printer-scanner-photocopiers and wi-fi hubs. 

It’s also not simple off-the-shelf shopping, either. 3D printers vary in usefulness, quality, speed and price. In the age of more predictable consumer choices like laptops, smartphones and game consoles, this new breed of device creates a decidedly grey area between the marketing bumf and customer satisfaction. 

iMakr’s revenue doesn’t just come from selling 3D printers, they troubleshoot design problems, run courses, launched a downloadable product service (myMiniFactory.com) and supply demonstration teams for live events.

Preumont believes this is a vital part of the consumer offering when everyone’s heard the buzz but few have experienced the genuine article. Perhaps 3D printing’s immediate commercial future is about education, selling ideas alongside the technology itself?

If you consider how websites and e-books opened publishing to the masses, YouTube simplified broadcasting and Microsoft Excel gave everyone easy database number crunching, you can see how 3D printing might turn product design and manufacturing into a popular pastime. 

Websites, Kindle, digital cameras and spreadsheet pie charts didn’t make everyone into writers, film directors and statisticians, but they transformed our leisure time and working processes. Fans of new technology assume home 3D printing will upset the manufacturing status quo in a similar way, but it needs to become as familiar as broadband or smartphones first.

Considering fully assembled home 3D printers have been available online since 2009 and DIY kits since 2005, Maplin have made one small step for the high street, not a giant leap for personalised home manufacturing.

What the hype over Maplin’s announcement shows is this: a high street retail presence still makes a difference to how we view technology as either a fad or a serious product. Old shopping habits die hard, which explains why downloadable entertainment services like iTunes and Spotify sell physical gift vouchers in supermarkets.

It also means that even if 3D printers are ready for home use, most homes aren’t ready for a 3D printer because, unlike machines, people don’t change that quickly.