Custom 3D printing will move one step closer to becoming mainstream next year, thanks to a forthcoming service from office supply mega-chain Staples.
Called Staples Easy 3D, the new offering will allow customers to upload STL, OBJ, or VRML files to the Staples Office Centre for 3D printing, then either pick up the finished models at their nearest Staples store or have them shipped.
Customers have been able to obtain 3D printing services from niche players such as Shapeways for several years now, but Staples will be the first major retailer to step into the field.
"Given our market leadership in commercial print, why would we ever stop at two dimensions?" Wouter Van Dijk, president of the Staples' European Printing Systems Division, said in a press release. "Customised parts, prototypes, art objects, architectural models, medical models and 3D maps are items customers need today, in a more affordable and more accessible manner."
The retailer offered no word on whether it had an official policy with regard to assault weapon parts.
Staples announced its plans for the service at the Euromold 2012 conference on Thursday alongside partner Mcor Technologies, which will supply its Mcor IRIS 3D printers to handle the orders.
Launched on Tuesday, the IRIS is a new kind of full-color 3D printer that uses paper, rather than plastic, as its build medium. Starting with a stack of ordinary A4 or letter-sized sheets, the machine binds them together using a water-based adhesive to create the finished models.
According to Mcor, because paper is such a natural medium for ink, the IRIS can also print in over one million simultaneous hues, producing near-photorealistic results. By comparison, most other color 3D printers only support a small range of colors, printed one at a time.
What's more, because they are paper-based and use no solvents, toxic resins, or plastics, IRIS-printed models can be disposed of in the recycling bin.
It's not clear how much models produced in this fashion will cost, compared to those made using other kinds of 3D printers. Staples has yet to announce pricing for its Easy 3D service, though it said it expected using the Mcor kit would help it keep prices low.
To hear Mcor tell it, the parts cost for the IRIS is 5 per cent that of other 3D printers, and the total cost of ownership for the printer is "one-fifth that of the competition." Time will tell.
Even if Staples' offering is the most cost-effective 3D-printing service on the market, however, it may be a while before you can try it out. The retailer said it plans to launch the service in the first quarter of 2013, but only in the Netherlands and Belgium to start.
After the initial run, it said, it plans to roll the service out to other countries "quickly" – but it did not specify which ones and it gave no timeline. ®