The most successful retail store in the world isn’t Macy’s, Harrods, or even Wal-Mart; it’s the Apple Store, which brings in far more money per square foot (the chief indicator of retail success) than any other retail operation. People like the Apple Store because of the experience — the demonstrations of products, the workshops, the ability to talk to a “genius” who can explain how to get your iPhone or iPad running, and more.
Tel Aviv’s new 3D Factory doesn’t sell Apple Products, but it furnishes an Apple-style experience for artists, designers, and regular folk who want something unique and different for their home. “3D printing in Israel until now has been confined to labs or universities, where those interested in the technology would try out their designs,” said Jessica Jaffe, manager of the store in an up and coming section of Jaffa, south of Tel Aviv. “We’re more consumer friendly, providing non-geeks with the opportunity to experience 3D printing.”
3D printing is just like “real” printing, except that instead of using ink or laser toner to transfer words or an image from a computer screen, the system uses materials to produce three-dimensional “prints” of a design on a screen made with 3D modeling software. High-end 3D printers can use a variety of materials, including metal, to reproduce objects (like guns); there are even printers that can “print” food, using sugar and other malleable ingredients to make candy and gum. Most 3D printers use various plastics (called filament) like PLA, which is made from corn starch, to produce objects.
For now, 3D Factory, which opened just a month ago, will restrict its printing to PLA, ABS filament, and other plastic-source objects – but shoppers in their store, as well as designers who come in with their own model files made on their computers or who use their workstation to build their own model files, will have no limits in printing objects made of those materials. The store has a retail section as well, where customers can come in and order a model (such as a vase, bottle opener, lamp, lunchboxes, even brass knuckles) and customize it by color, shape, size, and a dozen other criteria.
That’s where the experience part comes in. “Many of our customers are local families and tourists who bring their kids to watch the printing process, learning about 3D printing and seeing the object being created,” said Jaffe. “We have had some student groups come in as well, and part of our plan is to have workshops, educational groups, seminars, ‘printing parties,’ and all sorts of other activities both in-house and at schools and community centers.” 3D Factory also sells printers, as well as filament, for home users (Jaffe doesn’t think there are any in Israel just yet).
The time is definitely right to spread the word on 3D printing, if this year’s Consumer Electronics Show was any indication. The Las Vegas event featured dozens of consumer-oriented and consumer-priced ($1,000 and less) 3D printers for home use. Consumers love 3D printing, said Jaffe, because it lets them make unique, custom-designed objects for much less money than they would have to pay – if they could even find someone to make a single version of a mass-produced object like a vase. “For the first time, prices for custom-made objects are within the reach of anyone,” said Jaffe; many of the objects in the 3D Factory store cost no more than NIS 20 or 25 – giving them something far more special than they could get at a regular retailer, for almost the same price.
Thanks to Apple, retailers of all kinds are developing “experiences.” At BuildABear in New York, for example, kids take a model of bear and stuff it, watching as a machine fabricates their creation with eyes, nose, clothing, and features of their choosing. In the 3D world, the recently-opened Makerbot Store chain – which offers 3D printing services, seminars, workshops, and events – is another experience-oriented retail model 3D Factory hopes to emulate.
And the partners who established 3D Factory – Shaul Cohen and Oded Marcus – have ambitions way beyond Jaffa. “We are considering a franchise model, in which franchisees will open 3D Factories around Israel and provide the 3D experience in their own communities,” said Jaffe. “Right now we are just starting out, but already the enthusiasm for 3D printing and the store has been much greater than we anticipated. It’s exciting to be on the cutting edge of a new technology like this that has the potential to change the world.”