Staples look to 3-D printing to remain competitive

The office supply industry is faced with challenges from changing workplace behavior and competition from online players such as Amazon. As a result, the second and third largest players in the industry, Office Depot and Office Max merged in 2013. Meanwhile, the largest office supply retailer, Staples recently reported lower quarterly earnings and announced it would close up to 225 stores throughout North America by 2015.

To remain competitive as well as to take advantage of the needs of the growing small-to-medium-sized businesses and entrepreneurs, new products and services are being introduced. One of which is 3-D printing services.

Staples were one of the first retailers to actually sell 3-D printers in 2013 but now it has begun a pilot in New York and California to provide printing services. Partnering with 3D Systems, small business owners can bring their own 3D printing files to print at the retailer. According to Damien Leigh, Senior Vice President of Business Services for Staples “The test with 3D Systems will help us learn about our customers’ needs for a local 3D printing service and how Staples can help them make more happen for their business through printing”.

This pilot is an extension of the 3-D printing service Staples already offers its European customers. Launched in the Netherlands and Belgium in early 2013, the service called “Staples Easy 3D,” allows customers to upload electronic files to the online Staples Office Center and pick up the models in nearby Staples stores, or have them shipped to their address. Staples is partnering with Mcor Technologies to produce products on the Mcor IRIS, a commercial-class 3D printer.

To use Staple’s 3-D offering customers will need a 3D file from which the object will be made and will be limited to materials Staples has available. Big printing projects will be outsourced.

According to Gartner, by 2015, seven of the 50 largest multinational retailers will carry 3-D printers. Currently, Staples will compete against UPS’ testing locations that were introduced in 2013. While Staple’s 3-D system printers are desktop, consumer-oriented machines, UPS offers larger printers from Stratasys.

No doubt 3-D printing is reshaping manufacturing across all verticals and is impacting companies’ supply chains. Could Staples and other retailers such as this become models for the new contract manufacturer? A possibility perhaps and one that is also likely to bring some manufacturing closer to the end customer.