If you live close to the Mall at Robinson in Pittsburgh, or the Toys ‘R’ Us in Totowa, N.J. or Cranberry Township in Butler County, or several other toystores, you can have that experience for yourself right now. And soon, if all goes as planned, you will be able to have it in stores across the country.
Arden Rosenblatt and Alejandro Sklar, founders of PieceMaker Technologies, located in the trendy neighborhood of East Liberty in Pittsburgh, want to change the way people think about products. Their vision is to allow consumers to use software and their special PieceMaker 3D printer to get exactly the product or part they want, when they want it, at an affordable price.
Rosenblatt sees the 3D printer eventually replacing aisles of merchandise in stores.
”It’s a very powerful platform,” he says.
What inspired you to found PieceMaker Technologies?
Both Alejandro and I played with 3D printers on our own time before we came to graduate school [at Carnegie Mellon University], and it was a very exciting tool. For us, it represented the first time you could take software tools and use them to create your own physical product. Anyone could do it.
We saw it as a first step toward empowering people to not just pick an item off the shelf, but to make it exactly what they wanted. The dream is that it will make the world more special, more personal, more colorful.
We believe very strongly in decentralization in general, and this is the first step in decentralizing manufacturing, which is a tremendous force in our society.
When we first met, 3D printers were very expensive, they were hard to build and hard to get working reliably, so we had to build our own. We decided to focus on building a party-and-play system for everyone, so we could do for physical products what Apple did for music: You could get anything you wanted, wherever you wanted, very cheap and made on the spot.
By using this form of custom manufacturing technology, we realized you could free the digital supply chain. Instead of having a design house build a product, ship it around the world, estimate how many you’re going to sell — the whole complicated logistics process you have now — you can send base templates around the world digitally, for free, and have the end user change the specs at the point of use. So we cut out all the middle men and deliver the right product to the right place.
It’s a concept that could go beyond retail. You can imagine soldiers making replacement parts in the field, or hospital staff making specific items in the ER as the patient comes in. In any context, it simplifies the process by having reliable technology make products for the user.
How did you get started?
We started working on the printers, then quickly got involved in Project Olympus, the Carnegie Mellon incubator. It’s a great place. We spent a lot of time with Kit Needham (associate director of Project Olympus and its entrepreneur-in-residence), who helps all the companies get introduced to the scene and learn what it takes to build a business. She was our first mentor.
Our master’s program had a summer internship and we became the first students to do our own company as an internship. We also brought on some interns of our own.
Then we got accepted into the AlphaLab Gear accelerator program, Pittsburgh’s first hardware accelerator [an offshoot of Innovation Works’ AlphaLab]. It’s a little longer, a little more money, and they focus on hardware companies.
Innovation Works (Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southwestern PA) was an early investor in our company, supporting us from the beginning. They’re good people.
Tell about your product, the PieceMaker.
We wanted to make an easy, highly automated system for non-technical people. We started to make it (to sell to) consumers, but we quickly found that going straight into the home was very tough. The printers aren’t quite ready, and there’s not enough content yet to justify the time and cost.
What we learned from talking with retailers was that 3D printing can solve a lot of problems for them: They want to offer more variety of product, reduce their inventory costs, and provide a great shopping experience for their customers and a deeper connection with them.
Our product does all that. We have a ton of products in a simple kiosk. It’s all delivered digitally, so there’s no real inventory cost; and you can personalize it in a number of directions through a very physical experience that people enjoy. So it’s a good fit.
In February 2014, we built the mock-up and brought it to Toy Fair, the largest toy industry conference in North America. We had 20 retailers sign up for our wait list on the spot.
From there, we continued to refine it and test it locally with some of the independent toy stores in the area, including S.W. Randall Toys and Playthings Etc. in Butler County. We had a really good experience, and continued to build our kiosk into a more stand-alone, automated space.
At the Toy Fair, we met people from Toys ‘R’ Us. They had been trying to incorporate 3D printing into their stores, but couldn’t find anyone in the industry who could build what they needed. So they came to us. We did a two-store pilot with them (in Totowa, N.J. and Cranberry Township, Butler County), and now we’re in discussion with them about expanding. I can’t reveal any information about that yet.
How does it work for the consumer?
You can make all kinds of stuff. You start with a base template, and then you personalize it by choosing details and colors. We make various toys: action figures, dinosaurs, brick-toy-compatible pieces, fashion accessories like key chains or backpack pendants, and local and seasonal items. We try to fit every kiosk to the local needs. It’s a fun way for tweens — or anyone — to express themselves.
We’re working with partners offsite to print new materials like metals, but in-store we just use ABS plastic.
How has your business grown?
We graduated from AlphaLab Gear in March 2014 and moved into our office space in East Liberty. We share the space with another former AlphaLab Gear company, SolePower.
We have eight employees, plus the two of us. We have a huge wait list, but we’re very selective about who we roll out to and when.
Right now, we have our own pop-up at the Mall at Robinson in Pittsburgh. People can come take a photo of themselves in front of the green screen, and we’ll put it into a 3D-printed night light. The rest of our installations will come during the holiday shopping season.
What has been the biggest challenge in getting your business off the ground?
Funding. For first-time entrepreneurs, it’s a big capital expense. This is a new way of thinking about products, and you have to get a lot of people excited about it. It’s an ongoing challenge to build a big coalition around a very radical new idea.
What’s the big differentiator for PieceMaker Technologies?
We’re the first and only startup to do this successfully in a retail store.
Right now, our basic competitors are other products in the store. We try to complement them rather than compete with them. We’re not going to print a Barbie or LEGOs.
There are companies that do 3D printing of action figures, but they’re very expensive and take time to be shipped to the customer.
We build the printers using third-party manufacturers. It’s our design and we test them here. We design everything that goes in and out of the system, from the interfaces to the final printing. By managing the whole process, we ensure reliability and robust operation.
What’s next for your company?
Anywhere in the country where personalizing products and making something of your own are meaningful, we want to be there. One day, we might have our kiosks in sports and music venues, amusement parks, gift shops, museums, toy stores, hardware stores.
Toys are a great fit — our customers are tweens and families. Their faces light up when they get their final products. But as the technology improves, we’ll make more adult-oriented items such as housewares, office wares, etc. And down the road, it won’t just be personalization: We’ll replace entire aisles of products with kiosks.
Writer: Susan L. Pena