Next week, a new store on Burlington’s Church Street is set to open offering 3-D printing services to businesses and retail customers for virtually any object they can imagine.
Blu-Bin, a startup out of Poultney founded by Green Mountain College alumnus Dan Riley, opened Vermont’s first commercial 3-D printing operation in September 2012. The company has since made all sorts of plastic stuff for customers, such as phone cases, personalized keychains and replacement parts for other items.
Now almost a year old, the company is expanding to the retail hub of Vermont: Church Street. The new location occupies a small storefront underneath the Upstairs Mall on the street’s top block.
Does the market for widgets and whatsits really have enough demand to cover the overhead that comes with a Church Street storefront? David Newlands, chief operating officer of Blu-Bin, says yes.
“We believe it’s definitely a beneficial risk to take,” he says. “Yes, it’s a higher overhead. However, there’s a much bigger customer base.”
At first it’s hard to imagine what the average Church Street walker might want from a shop that can print off just about anything — the infinite possibilities almost make it harder to shop. But Newlands says things like totally customized phone cases and keychains have been popular sellers at the company’s Poultney location.
Here’s the cool part: Local designers who might have a great idea for a 3-D-printed object but lack the capital to invest in a printer with a four-figure price tag can still get in on the action. Blu-Bin is implementing a system through which designers can upload their designs into the company’s catalog of items. If someone comes into the store and buys that designer’s object, the designer gets 10 percent of the sale price.
Using the example of a custom phone case, Newlands says each case, priced at around $20, would generate $2 for the designer.
It’s easy to imagine such a system quickly filling with illicit objects in Burlington, home of thousands of creative college students. Newlands says there will be limits on what can be uploaded.
“There will be a small degree of administrative involvement in the uploading process,” he says. No guns or gun parts, no “Not Safe For Work” items. Plus, designers are required to accept an agreement before they start uploading that states anything they upload is their own intellectual property and they are responsible if any infringement occurs.
People who can’t design their own stuff and don’t want anything in the catalog won’t be out of luck, Newlands says.
When someone walks in the door with a specific need, it begins Blu-Bin’s collaborative process of cooking up an idea. Newlands says Blu-Bin employees will be on hand to listen to what the customer wants to accomplish and use their own 3-D-printing expertise to form the idea.
“We make it sort of a very communal process that gives you a good relationship between the seller and the buyer,” he says.
Newlands says smaller businesses are in a tough spot in the prevailing market when they seek items such as custom keychains to hand out on employee appreciation day. Chinese manufacturers that typically make such orders “won’t even look at your order if it’s below 5000 [units,]” he explains. “Here, you get exactly what you want, however many you want, whether it’s 30 or 300.”