The knock on 3D printing is that, while pretty cool in theory, in practice, it just produces a whole lot of lil plastic doohickeys. Because lots of things aren’t made out of plastic, and because injection mold manufacturing for plastic is still relatively affordable at scale.
But East Williamsburg’s Voodoo Manufacturing might be changing that.
They’ve teamed up with home improvement store Lowe’s to place a 3D-scanning kiosk inside the Lowe’s store in Chelsea. At the kiosk, customers are able to scan a unique or out-of-stock item and Voodoo Manufacturing will print it out and mail it to them. They’re also able to pick from a list of household items and are able to customize them by size and color, add text, etc. The program is called Lowe’s Bespoke Designs.
“This kiosk is very important to our vision,” said Voodoo Manufacturing cofounder Jonathan Schwartz in an interview. “Voodoo is not about prototyping, it’s about manufacturing and making real mass market parts and products. … This is one example of that and we’re hoping for more. We like to think of it as AWS manufacturing, where you can plug into our API and route orders to us as they come in.”
The kiosk comes as part of Lowe’s Innovation Labs, a small imprint within the company that looks for ways new technology can help the company and its shoppers. Lowe’s has technicians on hand at the kiosk who help customers scan their items or help them customize several products they can choose from the kiosk, like custom wall hooks and vases.
“For the NY customer, it’s a lot of restoration and renovation,” explained Jasmine Evans, a senior producer on Lowe’s Innovation Labs team, based at its Mooresville, N.C. headquarters. “We’ve had a couple use cases of broken parts. Customers are able to come in, bring that item, scan it in 3D and we can get it printed in plastic with Voodoo or metal with a firm in Philadelphia. For instance, a company came in and were able to scan an antique door knocker.”
The group of set items available for customization is another interesting facet of the operation. They’re simple things, like vases, wall hooks and picture frames, but instead of Lowe’s having to store a warehouse full of different sizes, shapes and colors of them, they don’t have to store anything. They can simply send the order to Voodoo Manufacturing, which will print it out and send it in the mail.
Schwartz calls this “on-demand manufacturing” and says it has huge potential.
“In 2015, over $500 billion was spent on inventory-carrying costs,” he said. “That’s real estate space, taxes and insurance. There’s really no other factory that can do this today. [With] most other factory methods, there’s labor that goes into making a new object. Maybe you need to make a new mold or different technicians. When new objects come in [here], the printers don’t really care what they’re making, so our changeover costs are much lower than like injection molding.”
Voodoo is, still, for the most part, limited to plastics. It has introduced a new rubbery material called TPU, and they company is experimenting with nylon and nickel-plating hard plastic, which results in a much more beautiful object than those currently made of plastic. Sleek nickel plating sounds as if it could open up a lot more types of products to 3D printing.