As Australian bricks and mortar retailers get in on the 3D printing trend, online retailer Amazon has expanded its presence in the space with its own online microsite dedicated to the technology. Badged under the headline “Additive Manufacturing products” (another name for 3D printing technology), Amazon is marketing 3D printers as well as parts, accessories, design software and even a 3D Printing for Dummies guide book.

While 3D printing has been a technological possibility for some time now, it is starting to gain traction as a technology available to the general public. At this year’s International CES in Las Vegas, the chief economist of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), Shaun DuBravac, said the consumer electronics industry was “entering a third industrial revolution driven by mass customisation,”as opposed to mass production, and this had been driven by the innovation of 3D printing.

A logical extension of custom shirt printing and personalised gift cards created from family photo albums, 3D printing is at the forefront of the mass customisation movement — DuBravac called out the fact that, at this year’s CES alone, more than 7,000 square feet of show floor space was dedicated to the “tremendous” story of 3D printing, including hardware, software and related services.

“It continues to have a tremendous amount of momentum [and] it’s still a very nascent market — by our estimate, next year worldwide we think we’ll sell just shy of 100,000 3D printers, what we call ‘consumer-grade’ desktop 3D printers” he said. “To put that into perspective, in the US alone we sell close to 40 million televisions [a year]. It’s still a very small market, but we’re starting to see that market grow and develop.”

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As that market grows and develops, retailers are beginning to capitalise on the trend. A few weeks after the January CES show wrapped up, Officeworks came out claiming it was the first Australian retailer to sell a 3D printer, offering the Cubify Cube 3D Printer online and in selected stores. After some fact checking, Officeworks later qualified that first to claim that it was “the first major retail chain in Australia to sell 3D printers in select stores and online” (Officeworks’ emphasis). Since then, Harvey Norman has also made the Cube 3D Printer available for pre-order online.

For its part, Amazon is offering desktop 3D printers from a number of brands, including Cubify’s model, as well as MakerBot, CubeX, UP! and FlashForge. It also sells different-coloured spools of 3D printer filament (the plastic that is melted in the machine and used to ‘print’ out the individual layers of three dimensional objects) and 3D scanners (used to scan an object in order to replicate it in a printer) ranging from MakerBot’s $800 model up to scanners retailing for a cool $49,900.

For the uninitiated, Amazon also offers a quick background into the technology and spruiks a ‘collection’ of 3D printed jewellery in its online store.

While spending $50k on a 3D scanner is out of the budget of most average consumers, the 3D trend is only expected to continue and filter down to the mass market; the shift from sci-fi imagination to bricks and mortar distribution is a clear indication of this. Australia’s top retailers and buyers are also set to gain more exposure to the technology this year with the Hong Kong Electronics Fair announcing a new product zone dedicated to 3D printing.

While there are still concerns over what the future of 3D printing looks like (3D printed guns are the common go-to in alarmist news reports that question the safety of the technology) it’s clear that this is a growing category that is set to change the consumer electronics space. More importantly, retailers are proving they’re at the vanguard when it comes to keeping up with this new technology, and they’re willing to play in a burgeoning retail category that is quite literally shaping the future of electronics.

The Cube 3D printer
The Cube 3D printer creates 3D objects by building up thin layers of colourful melted plastic.