How Amazon is giving 3D printing a boost with new marketplace of customizable prints

Amazon recently announced that it will offer customizable, 3D printed products to its customers. Will it help popularize 3D printing among the masses?

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.
Image: James Martin/CNET

"Shop the Future."

That's the tagline on the newest section of The online retailer recently opened up a new part of its website, and what it is selling in this section can depend totally on who's buying it.

On Monday, Amazon announced the Amazon 3D Printing Store where customers can shop among 200 unique products that can be 3D printed on demand and shipped immediately. Customers can choose a ready made design, or they can customize it by changing the material, size, style or color, and they can add personalized text or images. Currently, customers shop for jewelry, home decor, toys, and tech accessories.

"The introduction of our 3D Printed Products Store suggests the beginnings of a shift in online retail -- that manufacturing can be more nimble to provide an immersive customer experience. Sellers, in alignment with designers and manufacturers, can offer more dynamic inventory for customers to personalize and truly make their own," said Petra Schindler-Carter, Director for Amazon Marketplace Sales. "The 3D Printed Products Store allows us to help sellers, designers and manufacturers reach millions of customers while providing a fun and creative customer experience to personalize a potentially infinite number of products at great prices across many product categories."

Customers can utilize the pre-made design templates to easily customize a design. Most 3D printing software is based on computer-aided design (CAD) software, and is typically difficult to use if you have no training or experience in design. According to Forrester analyst Michael Yamnitsky, the number of products aren't potentially infinite.

"The service itself is limited to a handful of partners, products, and customization options. We believe this is a tactful move on Amazon's part because it will limit the risk of faulty prints. Software challenges stand in the way of successfully printing any 3D model a customer chooses or creates," Yamnitsky said. "What this means is that creating a scalable service for consumers to print anything they want will remain a significant challenge for some time, and Amazon will likely move slowly in expanding partners and features of the service."

With other 3D printing sites you can go to other retail sites and you can order a piece of jewelry that is printed on demand with 3D printing technology, but most of the time it will not be customizable. Pete Basiliere, an analyst at Gartner, said that by enabling people to experience customized 3D printed output, Amazon is "nurturing growth of the consumer market." What he means by this is that Amazon is helping to give consumers a better understanding of the value of 3D printing, which could lead to more people wanting to spring for a 3D printer in their own home.

"It's exciting because it is Amazon producing truly personalized 3D printed items for consumers and others," Basiliere said. "Most of the websites and other sources for 3D printed items only enable a person to receive an item that has been made with the technology, but not personalized."

Amazon's new store will definitely help to legitimize 3D printing, but it isn't the only company offering customizable 3D printed items. Companies such as Mymo, which offers customizable jewelry at an affordable price, have been operating online for some time, but they have yet to be able to scale to the degree at which Amazon can offer the service.

While Amazon is certainly bringing 3D printing to a broader, multinational audience, it will still face the main inhibitors faced by all other online providers of 3D printed goods. According to Basiliere, one of the constraints to shopping online is customers who have never experienced a 3D printed piece; so they don't know the value of a 3D printed gift. However, that is an issue faced by every online retailer of 3D printed products.

"Physical retailers will play in this space," Yamnitsky said. "We think consumers will want to get hands-on with 3D printers, and online 3D printing marketplaces shield the customer from the experience. So there's a big opportunity for physical retailers to build and staff 3D printing kiosks for customers to design and print at physical locations."

Storefronts can educate consumers by showcasing the technology and including customers in the process. Basilier mentioned British supermarket chain ASDA, which uses a 3D scanner to scan images of willing customers and 3D prints a miniature statue of the customer.

In the middle of June, Amazon launched a specific part of its site dedicated to selling 3D printers from companies such as Makerbot, Cubify, and fabbster; as well as materials and accessories for 3D printers. In this way, Amazon is following the technology industry maxim of "disrupt yourself before someone else does."

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