What Amazon’s foray into 3D printing means for the industry

July 28, 2014, 9:21 PM UTC
Photo courtesy: JOE KLAMAR AFP/Getty Images
Photograph by Joe Klamar—AFP/Getty Images

Amazon.com isn’t just a place to get books, music and other products that roll off assembly lines or stream online.

Amazon said Monday that online shoppers will now be able to buy 3D printed products on-demand from a list of 200 different items like bobblehead dolls, miniature plastic swords and pet ID tags. The technology lets people customize their orders beyond what has been previously been possible on the online retailing site including bobbleheads made to look like family and friends.

“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,” Petra Schindler-Carter, director for Amazon’s marketplace sales, said in a statement.

Amazon doesn’t actually handle the printing. Rather, it’s done by Mixee Labs, a company specialized in selling plastic 3D printed nicknacks. Products available through the partnership aren’t cheap. A 3D printed bobblehead costs $30 compared with versions made on an assembly line that cost around $12.

Moreover, anyone who wants speedy shipping is out of luck. Orders through Amazon for 3D products can take up to ten business days to fill.

Amazon’s partnership with Mixee comes long after other businesses like MakerBot and Shapeways have started selling 3D printed products to the public, according to Tim Shepherd, senior analyst at Canalys who is focused on the 3D printing industry. But Amazon’s big name and reach makes it an immediate force in the niche.

“Amazon is a huge name in online retail,” Shepherd said. “It opens the channels to a mass market.”

In general, there’s big potential for 3D printing in the consumer and retail space, he said. It’s already commonplace in industrial design including in auto making, in which 3D printers are used to make molds for parts.

“Most of the market, in value terms, has been driven by the enterprise space to create industrial models, printing models for architecture,” Shepherd said.

By introducing 3D printing, Amazon is letting more people see what the technology can do. But because customers can’t see the printing in action, some of the novelty is lost.

“There is this feeling of watching something get created, and this isn’t going to provide that in the same way,” Shepherd said. But he added that “it’s going to get people more excited” and potentially encourage them to buy and 3D printer to use in their own garage.

And how about those small 3D printing shops cropping up around the U.S.? Amazon’s move won’t likely have the same impact that it has had in pushing out small book shops, Shepherd predicted. “I don’t think it’s going to have a negative impact at all.”