Staples Plans to Enter 3-D Printing Scene, Shapeways Keeps Cool

There are two ways, generally speaking, for growing companies to react when big players take competitive interest in their market: scramble for new survival strategies or grin knowingly with a look that screams “let’s dance.”

Office supply chain Staples (Nasdaq: SPLS) based in Framingham, MA announced plans to bring 3-D printing in the first quarter of 2013 to some of its overseas stores. This is just one of the latest moves to stir up this increasingly competitive industry. From mergers to litigation and a new production facility due to open in January in New York, things are heating up among the rivals in the world of 3-D printing.

Last week, Mcor Technologies in Frankfurt, Germany announced it would supply commercial 3-D printers to be used in Staples stores in the Netherlands and Belgium. The service, dubbed Staples Easy 3-D, will let customers upload designs via an online platform and then pick up the finished models from participating stores. Other countries where Staples operates are expected to get the service; however, no specifics on where or when were available.

So far, Staples’ plans have not caused any visible uproar at New York-based Shapeways, a 3-D printing service and online marketplace. In fact, Shapeways spokeswoman Elisa Richardson says her company is excited to see Staples bring more attention to the scene. “Not a ton of people know what 3-D printing is capable of,” she says.

To sum up, 3-D printing is a manufacturing process for making solid objects layer-by-layer based on digital models. Designers can use 3-D printing to create prototypes, but in recent years the technology has caught the attention of hobbyists and tinkerers who want to create their own items.

Shapeways, for example, produces objects such as spinning sculptures and smartphone cases based on user-generated designs; a selection of those items are sold by the designers through the company’s website.

For the moment, Shapeways does not see Staples as a competitor because the office supply retailer plans to introduce paper-based 3-D printing services. Shapeways, in contrast, makes items from such materials as ceramics, plastics, stainless steel, silver, sandstone, and glass.

“We’ve never been interested in printing with paper,” Richardson says. “It seems that Staples is sticking to what they know. It will be cool to see what they do but I’m not sure what will be created with paper printers.”

Based on Mcor’s announcement, the service from Staples is being positioned for consumers, architects, designers, and others.

Even before Staples made its plans known, other players have been clamoring to claim territory in the 3-D printing market. MakerBot in Brooklyn develops and sells 3-D printers that consumers can buy and use at home to create their own objects. The company has been on a mission to get more of the public interested in making their own products.

The increased competition in this market has also led to consolidation and some legal spats. Z Corp., a Burlington, MA-based company which licensed 3-D printing technology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was acquired in January by 3D Systems Corp. (NYSE: DDD) in Rock Hill, SC. And it seems 3D Systems is far from done with Massachusetts companies in this industry—though not for deal making.

Last month 3D Systems filed a federal lawsuit against Cambridge-based startup Formlabs, a developer of desktop 3-D printers, and New York’s Kickstarter for intellectual property patent infringement. Formlabs used Kickstarter’s crowdfunding platform to raise nearly $3 million as of October, which included presales of its 3-D printers. 3D Systems is seeking an injunction and damages for the alleged infringement.

Others in 3-D printing have also hit a few snags as they try to capture slivers of the market. Panda Robotics, a startup operating out of Seattle and Toronto, said in a November blog post that it pulled its own Kickstarter campaign while development continued on its final product.

Meanwhile Shapeways, which relocated its headquarters in 2010 to New York from the Netherlands, seems to be contentedly chugging along. Shapeways is backed by investors that include Union Square Ventures, Index Ventures, and Lux Capital, and it’s putting the final touches on a production facility in Long Island City.

Richardson says her company will have at least 30 3-D printers up and running in January 2014, a strategy expected to reduce the time it takes to get products to stateside customers. “It’s a big step for us because to date we’ve only had production facilities outside the U.S.,” she says.

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