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Making It

Want a steak for dinner? One day, you might print one out


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3D Printing, Modern Meadow

What can you make with a 3D printer? Just about anything, from practical to divine.

Meat. Rocket parts. Human organs. Those are a few exotic items being made with 3D printers. Now two franchise brands are among the first to see whether the technique will fly with the masses.

What if you could see a dress on the runway, download a design, then print it out and wear it to a party this weekend—without going to the store or waiting for the mail?

What if you could print out a steak using animal stem cells, as a company called Modern Meadow is trying in its quest to find an “economic and compassionate” alternative to the traditional way of getting meat? 

What if you could print a hearing aid that perfectly fits an individual’s ear canal, as Danish firm Widex does? Or an airplane part, and maybe eventually an entire wing, as Boeing is working to do? Or what if you could print human skin?

All of those items can be made using a 3D printer, which follows a digital model to put down layer upon layer of plastic or metal or ceramic or nylon—or stem cells, in the most experimental cases—to build an object, just like a printer lays down ink. After each layer, the platform moves down a fraction. 

The manufacturing process has been around for at least two decades, but was reserved mostly for large corporations or research organizations that can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for the machines and employ sophisticated software designers to program them.

Until now. 3D printers have become cheap enough, starting below $2,000, that enthusiasts predict the day is near when one will be in every home or business (and to those who dismiss the idea they point out the original skepticism toward personal computers). Two U.S. brands are among the first franchises to test the waters—FastSigns on the corporate level, and AlphaGraphics led by one pioneering franchisee in the Seattle area.  

Others are experimenting, too. Brazilian franchisor Imprimate is said to be the first 3D printing franchise in the world, with four units open and a goal of 25. Staples is testing 3D printing services in its European stores, and a rollout by the giant retailer would get the technique to the masses.

And TechShop, a West Coast outfit with six corporate-owned stores that is considering franchising, does brisk business with its 3D printers. “We want to empower everybody to be able to make things,” says founder Jim Newton. “Right now, it’s really a bit weird. Our goal is to make it not weird.”

All seem intent on answering 3D printing’s most enticing question: What if?

‘It’s mesmerizing’

“We’ve been investigating the space casually and now with growing intensity over the last year,” says Chuck Stempler, CEO and president of AlphaGraphics Seattle, with six stores. “We see it as something we don’t completely understand, but there’s a lot of energy around it in the trade publications, in the crafting markets.”

3D printed jewelry

3D-printed jewelry was displayed at a Shapeways-sponsored event in March, to showcase fruits of the technology.

He plans to purchase a 3D printer in the $10,000 range, and place it in the downtown Seattle store, which he calls its major manufacturing location. He’ll dedicate some of his designers’ time to creating prototypes of 3D marketing materials for the store, and produce a video to post in the lobby for visitors. The idea will be to make objects so remarkable that they capture customers’ attention, and entice them to hire AlphaGraphics for their own fantastic creations.

“People tend to really watch these things. It’s mesmerizing,” he says about 3D printing. He found all kinds of machines while researching the investment. “There’s a machine out there that you can literally print the next machine,” he says. There’s a machine that allows users to make their own materials from the waste in their operation.

Stempler doesn’t know for sure who his ultimate customer will be, but his operation is large enough that it can absorb the cost of the experiment. “This is such an unstructured market that the point is to just get your hands on something and start making some things,” he says.

FastSigns expects early adopters

FastSigns, the Carrollton, Texas-based franchisor of signage, graphics and visual communications stores, is approaching the technology from the corporate level. “We’ve been exploring 3D printers for the last couple of years, and as the cost comes down it’s not just for prototyping,” says Gary Feltham, senior vice president of business development and vendor relations. “In the past it was used for very high-end concepts, like creating artificial hands. Now it’s becoming more commercially available.”  

At the FastSigns annual convention last year, vendors were asked for the first time to put 3D products on display. Just a few years ago, he says, “it was $40,000 to $50,000 for a printer, and very, very slow,” he recalls. ”But now they’ve come down to $1,700 to $4,500.”

This year, they asked vendors to bring in printers to make products on the spot. “We believe that it’s definitely commercially viable for many companies, and it’s on the cusp of being commercially viable for our centers.” 

FastSigns has 500 stores, and he figures they’ll soon have some early adopters who will buy in. “I think it will definitely be this year,” he says, when some franchisees “will jump on it and try it.” FastSigns prefers to allow franchisees to come forward to try new initiatives, rather than insisting.

Plenty of people already try 3D printing and many other tools at TechShop, which Jim Newton calls a “maker space” that started with a store in Menlo Park, California, in 2006. Six locations are open total, with four more under construction. “The beginning idea was I just wanted a shop for myself. I wanted all the cool tools because I wanted to make stuff,” he says. “There were no other maker spaces yet.” 

The $64,000 question

He thought of the health club membership model, and decided to apply that to a machine shop. Now there are nearly 5,000 active members who pay a fee and then come in to use the equipment when they wish. “I want it to be a regular part of life, just like health clubs,” he says. 

“If you went back 25 years ago to Gold’s Gym,” he says, “you would have seen people like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lou Ferrigno, and other body builders. There were no gyms, no health clubs,” yet now everyone’s familiar with the concept. He brings up desktop publishing as another example relevant to 3D printing. “At first, it was really hard,” he says, and now anybody can whip a newsletter together.

Will 3D printing become so widely available and easy that any business could do it, say a retail franchise that wants to print customized shoes, or an auto aftermarket franchise that wants to make its own parts, just as they’re ordered? “That’s the $64,000 question,” Newton says. Many articles on 3D printing claim “it’s going to replace traditional manufacturing, but right now the speed is the big problem. And no one’s made exponential leaps in speed, even since the 1980s. They’re still really slow.”

Someday will it happen? “I think so. Someone will come up with something that’s fast, that will allow one-off pieces to be produced.” And that’s when 3D printing will really get interesting. “If you want to make a million plastic buttons, injection molding is efficient,” he says, referring to the traditional manufacturing process. “But if you want to make a million buttons, each one different, current manufacturing won’t work.”

Newton says he’s increasing the number of 3D printers in his stores “all the time. We have MakerBots in all our locations,” and some other systems. But it’s hard to know where to bet next. “It’s changing so quickly, that I’m really hesitant to invest in any particular player right now. I know next year or the year after something will come that will make these obsolete.”

He can’t wait for that day, when everybody can make things, and nobody thinks it’s unusual. “Everybody has ideas of things they want to make, and the reason they don’t make them is they don’t know how.”

Robert Schouwenburg is the Manhattan-based co-founder of Shapeways, which he started in 2007. He likens it to Amazon, but when customers order products from jewelry to candles to phone cases, the service prints them out and mails them. He keenly follows developments in 3D printing and writes about them on his blog—he’s the source for the Imprimate and Staples news mentioned above.

“They’re also printing skin!” he says when asked for examples of the wild side of 3D printing. “They take cells from the body, they brew them in the laboratory, and then use a 3D printer to assemble that into skin, for example if you need a skin replacement. It’s experimental but they’re doing it.”

But more practical parts of the market interest him as well, like the popular MakerBot 3D printer that people are putting in their homes—his costs $2,000. When told about the FastSigns and AlphaGraphics experiments, he is pleased. “There’s a need for making it more omnipresent, and there are benefits for franchisors to go after this market,” he says. “A franchise can offer that—they can make the technology that is inaccessible for people, accessible.”

One final idea

That will be the goal at AlphaGraphics in Seattle, when they install their first 3D printer later this year. But owner Chuck Stempler has one more idea that he can’t wait to try, for his company’s annual pumpkin-carving contest where everyone goes wild. 

Last year’s winner, an employee with the last name “Weller,” carved an elaborate “Weller Grill” to wow the staff and win the contest. This year, Stempler will use his new weapon. “We’ll probably print a couple of pumpkins, and let’s see what we can do when we aren’t limited by an actual pumpkin,” he says. 

Does he think a prize is in his future? “I do. I do,” he says, lamenting that it would be bad form to actually win his own contest. “I won’t be able to claim it.” 

 

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