Apple has new competition in the market for cool high-tech stores.
MakerBot just opened its second and third stores on the East Coast, which has employees speculating about whether the company's line of small and affordable 3-D printers could soon have retail stores in Minnesota.
Company officials are mum on new store locations. But the Mall of America, for example, already has an Apple store and a Microsoft store. If a MakerBot does come this way, one thing is certain: it will pack some fun into the retail store experience.
That's because MakerBot, which is owned by Stratasys in Eden Prairie, is all about letting artists, school kids, professors, small businesses and consumers use its stores to design and "print" 3-D Christmas ornaments, glow-in-the-dark trolls, actual products or even 360-degree busts of their very own head and shoulders.
MakerBot has sold its 3-D printers over the Internet for four years. But last year it opened its first store, in New York City. When Stratasys bought MakerBot in August, it endorsed MakerBot's plans to open new stores last month in Greenwich, Conn., and Boston.
While MakerBot has toyed with hosting a machine or two inside Microsoft stores, a full-fledged MakerBot store is different, because it lets consumers play, attend classes and have fun under its own brand.
MakerBot's retail stores let customers scan objects or faces and then print them into plastic 3-D images. The company's new "3-D photo booths" are all the rage, said MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis.
"We opened our first retail store because we wanted to provide a place where you could step inside the future and see, touch and even smell 3-D printing," Pettis said.
The stores charge customers between $10 to $80 to "print" any object. The longer the print time, the higher the cost. The idea is to use the gee-whiz fun factor of the stores to convince gawkers that they need the actual machine, which can run $1,000 to $2,200.
"We had a 12-year-old come into the store today and his mom was so excited. The boy spent two hours totally engrossed making his own model houses using our 3-D [printer]. Now she's thinking of getting one for the home," said MakerBot spokeswoman Jenifer Howard, who spent all day Monday at the new Greenwich store. "I saw quite a few [printers] go out the door today for holiday presents."
Unlike parent Stratasys, which caters to larger companies willing to pay $300,000 to $600,000 for an industrial 3-D printer, MakerBot's desktop 3-D printers are aimed squarely at consumers. Each store has several live printers that zip back and forth depositing tiny layers of melted plastic into the desired shape. Customers bring in their own computer designs on USB drives or use company's designs to print objects.
"Love is definitely the number one word I use to describe my MakerBot. Next, it's creativity and speed," said entrepreneur Dulcie Madden, who uses her MakerBot to make wearable baby monitors called Rest Devices.
Madden and her two business partners bought their first MakerBot online before any store existed. Three weeks ago, they visited the new Boston store.
"In the store, there is so much excitement. I think it will do well," Madden said.
Rest Devices saved "hundreds of thousands of dollars and hours" in product development costs, Madden said, by using the MakerBot printers to rapidly make prototypes. Whenever the partners came up with a better design, they just printed out a new, wafer-sized baby monitor and sent it to moms for feedback.
"We use our MakerBot all the time, now. It's become indispensable," Madden said, noting that she recently got a second machine.
People like the small 3D-printers "because it does bridge the gap between the engineer and the professional designer and the architect, all the way to the entrepreneur and teachers and student," Howard said.
It's a new direction for rapid-prototype machines that bigger firms have been using for years. General Electric, Ford, General Motors and BMW, among others, have paid big money for freezer-sized 3-D printers to fabricate turbine parts to truck grills. With MakerBot, Stratasys now has a line of printers the size of microwave ovens and at much lower price points.
"I bought one and my kids use it. It's a lot of fun," said Jim Bartel, who manages the RedEye business unit of Stratasys, which provides rapid prototyping services to manufacturing customers.
Even Stratasys Chairman Scott Crump gets a kick out of the way the smaller machines are accepted by lay consumers.
Crump founded Stratasys in his kitchen in 1992 by using a hot-glue gun, computer and software to "print" a plastic frog for his then toddler daughter. Stratasys expects to post sales of $480 million in 2013.