Amazon's Giant Leap Into 3-D Printing Services This Week Pits It Against Shapeways

Amazon.com significantly stepped up its 3-D printing game this week when it announced a new feature in its 3D Printed Products store that enables customers to customize and personalize jewelry, toys, bobble-head dolls, home decor items, and more.

The online retailing behemoth is continually expanding its product category offerings, so providing customers an opportunity to customize their own items using 3-D printing shouldn't come as much of a surprise. After all, 3-D printing -- which involves building a product layer by layer -- has increasingly been making inroads into the consumer market. This is a "hot" technology that is expected to grow rapidly, and it was only a matter of time before the operator of the world's largest online marketplace threw its hat -- or an additional hat -- into the 3-D printing ring.

How does the site work and what can you customize?
Amazon's 3D Printed Products store has more than 200 print-on-demand products. Many of these can be customized by material, size, color, and style, and personalized with text and image imprints.

Customizable bobble-head doll. Source: Amazon. 

The site appears to be quite user-friendly, which we'd expect, as it's geared toward the average Joe and Jane. There's no need to be experienced with design software. It features design templates, interactive 360-degree preview functions so you can take a good look at your creation from all angles, and a product personalization widget. The store offers some relatively inexpensive customizable items priced less than $40, including cuff links, bobble-head dolls, and wine glass holders. The $100 price range includes accessories such as pendants, earrings, and rings.

Amazon apparently plans to rule the 3-D printing as a service space
In June, I wrote that it appeared that Amazon intended to rule the 3-D printing as a service space. At that time, the company had taken two steps into the 3-D printing realm. Its first step simply involved opening an online store to sell 3-D printers and 3-D printing accessories. Its second step earlier this year involved launching a pilot program in which several partners set up Amazon marketplaces for 3-D printed goods. The pilot involved four product categories: jewelry, home and kitchen, electronics, and toys and games.

Amazon's move this week is a giant leap, rather than just a step, and puts it in direct competition with Shapeways. In my June article, I predicted this would happen:

It seems, however, that the e-commerce giant is heading toward a battle with Shapeways, a privately held company that I recently wrote about. Shapeways, which has locations in New York City and The Netherlands, operates the world's largest marketplace for 3-D-printed products. Designers, hobbyists, and others enter their designs into Shapeways' system, and the items are printed by the company's in-house printers, and those of its independent partners. Then, if the customer wishes, Shapeways includes his or her product(s) in its marketplace, where people can buy and sell 3-D printed goods. It handles everything for the sellers, including payment processing and shipping.

Shapeways is known to have a very loyal user base; however, given Amazon's massive reach and financial resources, it's likely going to be difficult for Shapeways to fend off this particular attack over the long term.

Amazon's entrance into this aspect of the business was only a matter of time, given that the business model is not only attractive, but also a perfect fit with the e-commerce king's current model. In addition to helping customers express their individuality, the business model offers an appealing way for designers and hobbyists to design and sell their products. It removes the sizable up-front cost of buying one or more 3-D printers, eliminates the hassles of dealing with the post-production processes, and offers a much wider potential customer base than most companies likely could drum up on their own.

Potential winners and losers
Amazon's move should be a boon to the 3-D printing industry -- and investors in this space -- by exposing many more people to this technology. Surely, some of them will eventually want to buy their own 3-D printer. Additionally, the busier Amazon's 3-D printed marketplace becomes, the more commercial- and industrial-grade 3-D printers that its partners will have to buy to manufacture the customized products that shoppers order. 

Shapeways, however, might want to 3-D print some gigantic boxing gloves, as the battle to rule the 3-D printing as a service space in the consumer market has officially now begun!


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