Young visionaries at PieceMaker Technologies Inc. see future in 3-D
Arden Rosenblatt and Alejandro Sklar believe they are pioneers in bringing 3-D printing to the masses.
Their company, PieceMaker Technologies Inc., is developing 3-D printing kiosks for retailers, and they say it is the first to offer them in toy stores. The goal of their “factory in a store” concept is to let consumers personalize about 100 designs for toys, jewelry and other small gifts.
They have deals to put kiosks in 20 stores in seven states and Canada — including S.W. Randall Toyes & Giftes in Squirrel Hill and Downtown, the only ones installed so far. Customers and toy store owners are reacting positively, the young entrepreneurs say.
“Until now, 3-D printing has always been about printing prototypes for manufacturers,” Sklar said on Wednesday in S.W. Randall in Squirrel Hill. “But this is the first time a consumer store has taken a consumer design and printed it.”
Manufacturers, technical schools and libraries have been the primary users of 3-D printing technology, making physical objects from digital data by depositing plastic, metal and other materials — layer by layer — in machines that resemble ink-jet printers in homes and offices.
At a PieceMaker kiosk, consumers customize an item — a pendant, chess piece, ring or other novelty — and a store employee produces it at a 3-D printing station in about 20 minutes. Suggested retail prices range from $5 to $10.
Rosenblatt and Sklar have a bigger vision: to license popular toy designs from consumer giants such as Disney or Mattel and work with the companies to test-market toy designs faster and cheaper. They have not had discussions with the two national brands.
The two 25-year-olds postponed completing advanced degrees in engineering at Carnegie Mellon University to meet an October deadline to install their kiosks in more stores, including seven in the Pittsburgh area. They declined to name others besides S.W. Randall, the first with a 3-D kiosk.
An Internet search found no services like it, although some 3-D printer makers sell novelties as a marketing tool.
“We designed it so that it can be self-sufficient,” said Sklar, chief technology officer. “Prices of 3-D printers are plummeting, so we're introducing this technology into retail so people can use it.”
The first person to use it at S.W. Randall was Matt Werb, who walked into the Squirrel Hill store, spotted the 3-D printing kiosk and ordered a pendant, personalized with “Marry Me.” He proposed to his fiancee Lucy Findley, and they set a Dec. 13 date to wed.
“It was neat, and it was different,” Werb said. “They could put anything on it, and I had been looking to propose for a while. ... I gave it to her later that week. Once she read the engraving ... she loved it.”
Shannon Veatch, manager at S.W. Randall, said PieceMaker's technology is “a really great addition to this store.” Shortly after its installation, a woman came in looking for favors for a birthday party.
“She made bricks that a mini Lego figure could plug into — after that, it attracted a lot more business by word of mouth,” Veatch said.
Rosenblatt and Sklar got a break in February when they took their idea to the American International Toy Fair 2014 in New York City, hoping to attract attention from manufacturers, investors and retailers. They received coverage from MAKE Magazine, which covers do-it-yourself technology, and CNBC, the cable business news channel. They signed 20 retailers.
“Toy Fair was a turning point for us,” said Rosenblatt, PieceMaker's CEO. Until then, it was unclear which part of the 3-D printing market was the best fit for their efforts.
They started the company in January 2013 with the idea of developing their own 3-D printer and software to use it, but soon learned it was a competitive market, said Rosen-blatt, a native of West Chester, N.Y. Last fall, they realized that retail was a better fit.
In October, PieceMaker was one of eight companies selected for Innovation Works' first AlphaLab Gear class. The program helps startup, hardware-oriented companies attract private investment. Since 1999, Innovation Works has invested more than $52 million in 168 technology startups, which later raised more than $1.5 billion from investors.
PieceMaker received $50,000 from Innovation Works and StartBot LLC, a venture fund founded by Industrial Scientific Corp., and got mentoring and space to work.
In fall and winter, they built the kiosk, wrote software and data files, and refined settings for the printers they bought from other companies. Since Toy Fair, they have worked to streamline the system so retail employees will have to spend no more than one minute on each printout.
“I think that's achievable by Oct. 1,” said Sklar, a native of Miami.
In stores with the kiosks, Rosenblatt said, “we have increased sales by 7 percent on days we've been operating, but we only take up about 1 percent of the floor space.”
They collect revenue from licensing fees and supplies to operate the systems, but they declined to give specifics.
Advanced manufacturing, which includes 3-D printing, “is growing exponentially,” said Ilana Diamond, managing director of AlphaLab Gear. “It's going to get better, cheaper and faster.
“Long term, the folks who understand how to make it viable for retailers and make the technology operate with minimum maintenance, they are going to own that market. These guys are the first ones to come into the retail toy market.”
John D. Oravecz is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7882 or firstname.lastname@example.org.