Large Retailers Offer 3D Printing February 2015
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Supermarket chain—and Walmart subsidiary—Asda (Leeds, England) is testing a retail 3D-printing service in the United Kingdom. Specifically, the company's 3DME service offers Asda customers the chance to own a 3D-printed model of themselves, members of their family, or friends. The idea is to enable people to celebrate important occasions such as weddings, births, or graduations. In the words of the Asda 3DME website, "Imagine what it would be like to have a miniature figurine of yourself or a loved one, a precious moment in time that can be given as a gift or as a reminder of a significant time in your life? Now we can make that a reality."
After booking an appointment, Asda technicians use 3D-scanning equipment to capture a 3D image of the customer. The scanning process—using a bespoke scanning booth that Luxembourg-based company Artec Group has developed—takes a mere 12 seconds to complete. After 21 days, the customer receives an accurate, full-color, 8-inch-tall figurine. Reportedly, the system uses a palette of 6 million colors, so representation of clothing and skin is reasonably accurate. (Indeed, pictures of figurines on the 3DME website are remarkably lifelike.) Group figures—up to three people—are also possible.
The service uses 3D Systems' ZPrinter 650 to create these 3D figures. Asda first tested its 3DME service in one store in late 2014, using handheld scanners. The company is now rolling out the service across several stores in the United Kingdom, using scanning booths. Currently, prices for figures start at $75 but can reach over $200—largely depending on the number of people in the model.
This development follows office-supplies-retailer Staples' launch of a 3D-printing-experience service in 2014 in the United States.
This development has four important implications: First, the service involves a really interesting, tangible application for 3D printing. Essentially, this service is akin to solid photography. Although the service is relatively expensive, it is within the reach of many people. I expect many people would like to own a 3D model of a loved one.
Second, the professionalism of Asda's service is important. This service's concept is not new, but Asda's packaging of this concept is impressive. The company has taken a niche idea and is pushing it toward mainstream applications. Third, the speed of the scanning process is very high. Customers have to stand in the scanning booth for only 12 seconds.
Fourth, the speed and cost of actual printing remain limiting factors. According to company literature, the ZPrinter 650 prints at a speed of 1.1 vertical inches per hour. In other words, each "solid selfie" takes about seven hours to print out.
Consumer applications of 3D printing have been the subject of much hype in the past few years. However, Asda may well have stumbled across somewhat of a "killer app"—at least in terms of recreation applications. The success of schemes such as those Asda and Staples are now testing is certainly worth monitoring. And importantly—despite the printing constraints that I highlight above—this service is available today. (I estimate that this development has a technology-readiness level of 9.)
Given that 3D-printing technology is likely to improve in terms of speed, resolution, and cost, this kind of service is likely to become more affordable and popular in the next few years.
In the late nineteenth century, photography changed societies. The emergence of 3DME and similar services poses a somewhat significant question: Is this development the new portrait photograph? Arguably, 2014 was the year of the selfie; could 2016 or 2017 become the year of the solid selfie? Only time will tell.