In the not too distant future, 3-D printers may provide the public with anything from a whole new wardrobe, to meat, to furniture — and even human organs.
We aren’t there yet. But a few major retailers and brands, eager to keep pace with a potentially game-changing technology, have begun to explore this 3-D world.
One of those is Hasbro, which announced Monday a partnership with a 3-D printing company, Shapeways, to sell fan art inspired by its long-lasting toy line My Little Pony.
“We have been investigating 3-D printing for quite a while, as have many people,” said John Frascotti, chief marketing officer at Hasbro. “What 3-D printing truly empowers is the creation of artwork that maybe wouldn’t make sense for mass production, but it makes sense for a unique item.”
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For this project, which Frascotti described as “mass customization,” the company will start with five artists whose work will be available for order online and printed in a colorful plastic polymer that Shapeways executives describe as feeling similar to sandstone.
The designs must be cleared with Hasbro to ensure they are not obscene, violent or hateful, but otherwise, the artists largely have free rein. Even the price for the figurines will be set by the artists.
One piece available for sale beginning this week on the project’s website shows a perky, purple dragon named Spike, standing on a pile of books in front of a tall table, with a quill pen in his hand. The piece is called “Spike, Take a Note.” Another piece is a blue and purple unicorn with a luxurious mane.
Hasbro hopes to include more artists, more of its brands and other materials, given that Shapeways prints using everything from high-end plastics for iPhone cases, to gold for jewelry and ceramic for coffee cups.
The advent of 3-D printing has created enormous potential for sales, but it also creates a raft of new opportunity for theft, especially of intellectual property. Why go out and buy a doll if you can just print one yourself?
But instead of snapping a tight lid over its characters, Hasbro’s collaboration with Shapeways may extend the reach of its trademarks while keeping control of what is associated with the brand.
“Instead of trying to prohibit it, they’re enabling it, and I think that’s awesome,” said Peter Weijmarshausen, chief executive of Shapeways. “By embracing this new technology, it’s good for everybody. The end-user is happy because he or she gets what they want, and we don’t get into a fight.”
While 3-D printers are largely new to the public, retailers and other companies have been using them behind the scenes for years. Target has a few at its headquarters in Minneapolis. They are about the size of a large refrigerator and are used by the company’s design team to make prototypes. Frascotti said Hasbro has some industrial 3-D printers for similar purposes.
Target does not sell 3-D printers, but a spokesman for the company said it was an area they were “actively monitoring.”
Home Depot has been selling 3-D printers by MakerBot on its website, and last week it announced it would begin selling them at stores in a few major cities like New York and Los Angeles. These printers start at $1,375.
Such printers for the home are often about the size of a microwave oven and can be used to make items like fashion accessories, utensils and replacement parts for bicycles or musical instruments.
Wal-Mart has begun experimenting with a 3-D printer’s consumer potential. At the opening of several Sam’s Club locations this year, 3-D printers will offer a treat to shoppers: after a face scan, they can put resin printouts of a person’s head on the action-figure-size body of one of three Marvel characters (Iron Man, Captain America or Black Widow).
Sucharita Mulpuru, an analyst at Forrester Research, said consumer 3-D printing is mainly a novelty for now, “but I do think it will transform our lives in the future.”