One company making strategic use of 3-D printing is shipping and logistics giant UPS. The company, which also makes its services available to smaller customers via storefront operations, has responded to the growing interest in the technology with a program designed to help small businesses and startups that may not have the funds to purchase their own 3-D printer.
A poll of small-business owners conducted by UPS showed high interest in trying out the technology, particularly among those wanting to create prototypes, artistic renderings or promotional materials. So, in July the company announced the start of a program that UPS said makes it the first nationwide retailer to test 3-D printing services in-store.
Staples claims to be the first retailer to stock 3-D printers for consumers, but UPS says its program makes it the first to offer 3-D printing services like computer-aided design consultations in addition to the printing itself.
Currently, there are six independently owned UPS store locations offering Stratasys' uPrint SE Plus printer, an industrial-grade machine. A store in San Diego was the first to get it, followed by locations in Washington, D.C.; Chicago; New York; and outside Dallas. In September, the printer was installed at a location in Menlo Park, California, just off Sand Hill Road in Silicon Valley, a street known for its concentration of venture capital companies backing tech startups.
The UPS Store will gather feedback from store owners and customers over the next 12 months and then will decide whether to add printers in additional stores if the test is successful.
So far at the San Diego store, costs to the customer have ranged from $10, for lifelike knuckles printed by a medical device developer, to $500 for a prototype printed by a prosthetics company. The biggest factor in determining price is the complexity of the design.
The customer brings in a digital file in the STL format to the store. The store then checks to make sure the file is print-ready by running it through a software program. If it is, the customer gets a quote for the printing and labor costs.
Sometimes the digital file needs to be reworked or created from scratch. In such cases, the customer can work with a contracted 3-D printing designer to iron out the design. Depending on how this meeting goes, it can be a several-step process before a file is ready for printing, said Daniel Remba, the UPS Store's small-business technology leader, who leads the company's 3-D printing project.
SOURCE : CIO
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