Everyone's talking about how 3-D printing will change the world, but to many people, it's a concept about as relatable as Amazon's flying delivery drones.
Hoping to demystify the technology for entrepreneurs and small-business owners, Staples is rolling out 3-D printing services at two of its 1,800 stores.
"Customers can interact with the technology and begin to understand it," says Damien Leigh, senior vice president of business services for Staples, at a panel discussion today at the company's Fifth Avenue store in New York City, which along with a Los Angeles location, will offer 3-D printing. "We can get them through the learning curve. 3-D can revolutionize [small] businesses, but they don't understand it yet."
3-D printing, which transforms computer files into real-world objects, is entering its "2.0" stage, according to Ash Martin of 3D Systems, a 30-year-old company that creates 3-D printers. Still, while the technology has gotten a lot of buzz over the past few years, its uses still remain mysterious to most people, says Gene Marks, a small-business owner who moderated the panel and writes for publications including Entrepreneur.com.
The printers can be used for anything from personalized smartphone covers and action figures to replacing missing board game pieces and even missing limbs. Small-business owners may utilize the technology for promotional items or gifts to customers, or to create real-world prototypes of new ideas.
Staples employees will help interested customers bring their designs to life, and the company is training some of its internal designers to work with the technology.
"By leveraging 3-D printing, it's an opportunity for small businesses to differentiate themselves," Martin says. "3D printing allows you to do things you weren't able to do before."
UPS also offers 3-D printing services at six of its locations across the U.S.
Leigh says that Staples -- the largest provider of promotional materials in the U.S. -- is "prototyping" its pricing based on how customers utilize the printers.
"We have to figure out the business model," he says. "We're working through price points that will create a demand for it. I can only imagine how good we'll get at this over time."