Three-dimensional printing is now a mainstay among the world’s tech communities, and the craft once used only by micro-manufacturers and hobbyists is now readily available in the Springs.
In April, a fourth branch of the Denver-based 3D Printing Store — “The first retail store in America catering to consumers, hobbyists and professionals,” according to its website — opened its doors at 4250 Buckingham Drive.
The small store is located in a 15,000-square-foot industrial space off Garden of the Gods Road west of Interstate 25, in the same building as parent company MAM-A.
It operates with a lean staff: one technician, one design contractor, a marketing specialist and General Manager Joe Weisenbach.
On a desktop near the front door sit dozens of colorful prototypes the team has produced as examples: household items, toys, clothing accessories, small figurines and even a 6-inch model of Weisenbach himself.
“Most of the things we do are things that people can’t find otherwise, or they would have just gone out and bought them,” he said.
Weisenbach said the shop rarely receives the same order twice — aside from chess pieces, for which he has received three.
The team has created promotional items, cell phone cases, clamps and clips, parts for a Pachinko mechanical game and for a 1985 Pontiac Fiero, and they are currently working on a fully functional prosthetic hand.
“You never know what people are going to want,” he said. “It’s just amazing.”
If a design is beyond the capability of Weisenbach’s team, the shop will send an order to the Denver store or to another facility for production. Weisenbach said that the store has sent a half-dozen of its orders to that store, which has larger, more sophisticated printers.
“I’m shopping right now for a machine that will give us more capabilities,” he said, adding that such a device would make the local store more marketable for more significant orders.
The 3D Printing Store uses machines built by Minnesota-based Afinia to create small objects.
It is also an official retailer for the printers ($1,299), and sells spools of the colored plastic filament ($31.99 per kilogram) and other tools and parts for micro-manufacturing.
After being sent computer-aided design files from proprietary software, the printers use “fused deposition modeling” to create small objects with the heated plastics that are available in 28 colors.
Labor costs between $20 and $30 per hour for the service, plus an additional $50 an hour for any necessary design work.
The store has only sold about a dozen of the machines this year, including one to Pikes Peak Library District’s new Library 21C branch.
A new model
Locally headquartered MAM-A — once Japanese-held Mitsui Advanced Media-America — decided to start the subsidiary last year, as the company became interested in the concept of 3D printing as a way to augment the sliding sales of its high-quality storage CDs.
Although CD sales have remained flat this year, Weisenbach said that they had been cut in half by the time the store opened.
The decrease in business led to the company’s move from a 50,000-square-foot headquarters on Federal Drive to the new spot with only a tenth of the workers it once employed.
MAM-A dipped its toe into the industry by striking a deal to sell Afinias just before building a partnership with the Denver 3D Printing Store last June. The newest location is not a franchise, but has a similar working agreement, according to Weisenbach.
Since opening in April, the 3D Printing Store has doubled the number of customers it serves each month, Weisnbach said, but printing remains only “a small percentage of the business.”
“It has been picking up every month since we opened,” he said, adding that the store receives an average of two orders each day.
The company hopes to turn the niche into half of its business within the next five to 10 years.
“I of course want to continue to make this business grow, and we’re going to pursue the retail aspects of 3D printing, but also the industrial aspects,” he said. “I would like to grow our customer base among manufacturers as well as any other customers in Colorado Springs and Southern Colorado.”
The firm not only caters to curious hobbyists and small-business owners, but to area aerospace companies, including Aeroflex and QFP Test Clips. Weisenbach said he would like to continue to build partnerships with other defense contractors in the region.
“Those are the kinds of customers that we’re really looking for,” he said. “Those that will need the same types of things on a regular basis. … It’s not just consumers that are interested in 3D printing.”
Although Amazon.com now has a 3D Printing Store and the machines are sold at select Home Depot locations, Weisenbach said there are no serious competitors in the Springs, and local hobbyists and online vendors cannot match the quality his team offers.
Although it could affect the company’s business, Weisenbach said Library 21C has a battle to fight with the three printing and scanning devices within its maker-space before he’s likely to see the effects.
“There’s a learning curve though, and they just opened last month so I don’t think they’re quite there yet,” he said of the library’s capabilities. “There is some know-how. You need to get it to print properly with the right amount of supports, you need to get it to adhere to the platform properly … there are a lot of adjustments to make so that the prints come out as nice as you want them to.”
A new community is born
Chris Vestal is a leader of the Pikes Peak region’s 3D-printing subculture.
Since opening his own 3D printing-based online retailer last year, he has started the “Colorado Springs 3D Printing Community” for enthusiasts and is spearheading the development of “Pikes Peak Makerspace” for the niche industry he calls “micro-manufacturing.”
The makerspace, which currently occupies a temporary space within the Manitou Art Center (513 Manitou Ave.), was recently approved as a Pikes Peak Community Foundation project. Vestal said the facility will serve as a co-operative for the creative and entrepreneurial community in Colorado Springs, but will also include a retail space.
“I’m hoping we have channels set aside where we are able to have a little retail outlet where people can sell the items they have printed,” Vestal said, adding that the group still needs to work out the logistical aspects of that arrangement. “It’s more of a community than a business.”
Vestal said that although the “niche industry” has come a long way, it has a bit to go. The craft is mostly used for short production runs in “niches where people wouldn’t usually go because it might be too costly to manufacture by traditional methods,” he said. “It’s just not there yet.”
He said it will likely be another 10 years before 3D printing becomes a real threat to traditional retailers and manufacturers, as well as a boon for those selling affordable printers for the everyman. Even when that day comes, he thinks it will be a mixed bag, with some investing in machines while others defer orders to businesses like the 3D Printing Store.
“Most of the handymen who have a drill press or a belt sander in their garage will probably have a 3D printer,” he said.
But for Vestal, 3D printing is part of everyday business operations at his companies MotoMinded LLC and Rally Moto Kit LLC. He also owns a small business called Concept Vision LLC, which designs digital 3D renderings.
MotoMinded produces aftermarket parts for motorcycles and began in just a weekend: Vestal had an idea on a Friday, designed it that night, prototyped it Saturday, built a website and started selling Sunday night.
“That’s how fast it can happen — I think that’s what is so great about 3D printing,” he said.
“If I went the traditional route and spent $10,000, I would be dead in the water already,” Vestal said, adding that 3D printing allows for changes in design that are essential in the modern marketplace.
In his Boulder Street shop, Vestal operates four Taz printers made by Loveland-based Lulzbot. He said the $2,500 printers, which are typically printing simultaneously, are highly capable — a testament to how cost continues to decrease, while quality rises.
“The race right now seems to be to the cheapest printer that works OK,” Vestal said. “Everyone is chasing the bottom dollar.”
Vestal’s Meetup group is currently working to organize a weekend during which buyers of build-it-yourself Lulzbot kits (around $1,500) will gather and learn how to assemble them during a weekend.
“It’s really nice to help everyone else grow and operate and keep up with it,” he said.
3D Printing Store
Address: 4250 Buckingham Drive
Phone number: 262-2451
Employees: three full-time, one contractor
Hours: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. on business days
Since: April 1, 2014