In July 2013, UPS announced that it would offer product design and 3D printing services at six of its 4,400 UPS Store locations across the U.S. The new service would be a part of a pilot program to determine whether the company could offer this service—an area in which it had no previous experience. Last week, the company announced that it is expanding the program to 100 stores nationwide. Already, the service is available at 45 locations. The company plans to expand the program into 2015 until it reaches the 100 or so locations. UPS has chosen to use the uPrint 3D printer from Stratasys for the program.
I was skeptical when I first heard about the idea. Offering 3D printing is one thing, but providing design services is far more involved. To me, it sounded like UPS was opening a can of worms. I envisioned home inventors, do-it-yourselfers, and others walking into stores with half-baked napkin sketches of new product ideas and expecting someone to magically convert them into printable files. When starting with underdeveloped ideas, the big cost is in the design and CAD solid modeling work, not the 3D printing of scaled plastic models. The big question I had was: Who is going to pay for this relatively expensive service? The average consumer would probably not fully understand and appreciate the effort and cost, and would go away disillusioned.
It turns out the UPS is selling the service mostly to people that are bringing in already-developed 3D solid models, in STL form, to the stores. Most are practicing professionals, although a number of amateurs using Tinkercad and other low-cost CAD products are also using the service. The target market and “sweet spot” for The UPS Store network are businesses that employ 10 people or less. UPS is serving as a small business resource center and helping customers with a wide range of services. Among them are page design, signage, marketing collateral, accounting, payroll, websites, and even employee background checks.
From what I can tell, the first year of 3D printing at UPS has been mostly successful. Franchise owners or managers of The UPS Stores offering this service have been trained to manage the 3D printing operation. Daniel Remba, UPS small business technology leader, said that he expected more demand for design services, which are being outsourced to contractors. I asked him how many of the stores would have product development and 3D printing services in the future. He did not know, but stated that it could grow to 1,000 or more, although it’s much too early to know where it will go.