July 24, 2014, 12:12 PM

How online marketplaces are showcasing 3-D printing

The decades-old manufacturing technique allows retailers to slash prototyping costs and quickly customize items to shoppers’ tastes, and online marketplaces are offering them a place to sell their wares.

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3-D printing offers a tantalizing way for online retailers to stand out from the crowd—including physical stores heavily stocked with mass-produced merchandise. Online marketplaces, such as those at Amazon.com Inc. and Etsy Inc. are offering retailers a place to sell their 3-D-printed wares.

“We are excited by what we can see in the near-term and what our customers can do to play a role in design,” says Petra Schindler-Carter, director for marketplace sales at Amazon, which launched its first 3-D printed goods marketplace in July. “There’s now an ecosystem of folks who are independent designers who see this as a real opportunity to make a unique product that brings something to the customer that hasn’t been created before.”

Wouter Nicolai, owner of Netherlands-based 3-D-printed cookie-cutter store Printmeneer, says he receives a couple custom design requests per week via his Etsy store. “Some of [the customers] are drawn to the cutters because they are 3-D printed, but for most of them it is because the designs are not available elsewhere or can be customized on request,” he says.

Still retail behemoths Amazon and eBay are only just getting into the 3-D printing game. Within the last 14 months, both companies have announced new 3-D printed goods categories in their online marketplaces: Amazon launched the category this past July and eBay last year running a pilot program selling custom 3-D printed objects from the eBay Exact iPhone app.

For Amazon, the move is about the retailer first connecting with 3-D printing experts, then seeing what consumers want from them, Schindler-Carter says. “A big differentiation is the ability for the customer to be an active participant in the creation of the product,” she says. For instance, a shopper could change the dimensions of a piece of jewelry, or perhaps add her name to an iPhone case.

While Amazon so far is leaving the manufacturing work up to its marketplace sellers, it has developed its own customization tool for the product detail pages in its 3-D marketplace, Schindler-Carter says. The tool allows a customer to change attributes of many products, such as the sizes or colors, and view the personalized item from all angles.

“It’s early days for all of us,” she says. “I’m imagining this will allow us to reach a new pool of designers and sellers who can leverage the Amazon Marketplace.”

It remains to be seen how well the 3-D marketplace takes off for Amazon. EBay, meanwhile, stopped allowing merchants to sell 3-D printed goods through its app and has no other 3-D ventures in the works for now, a spokeswoman for the company says, declining to share additional details. Like Amazon, eBay used the pilot project to establish a foothold with some of the top 3-D printing companies—for instance, eBay Exact offered items printed by Brooklyn-based MakerBot, the French company Sculpteo and the Canadian firm Hot Pop Factory.

Read more about 3-D printing in the August issue of Internet Retailer magazine. Subscribe here

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