In 2011, when South African carpenter Richard Van As lost four fingers in a woodworking accident, he designed and literally printed out a Robohand with the MakerBot Replicator 2 3D printer.
He then uploaded his blueprint to the website Thingiverse.com - one of the largest repositories in the world for digital design encompassing more than 100,000 3D designs - enabling others to easily print out their own mechanical hands.
It may sound like a plot from The Twilight Zone, but the ability to print out body parts, cars, buildings, guns, and even food is now a reality.
For the last 30 years, 3D printing has been in the industrial space, with units costing upward of $1 million. Today, desktop 3D printers and scanners are priced as low as $1,400, and consumers are taking notice.
For those who aren't quite ready to shell out for a printer, 3D designs such as Robohand can be downloaded through cloud software and printed off-site through companies including MakerBot and 3D Systems.Consumer focus
Founded in 2009, Brooklyn-based MakerBot Industries brought 3D printing technology to an affordable and accessible level through an open-source model.
The company's goal is to put a 3D printer in every US school and on the desk of every engineer, architect, and entrepreneur, and eventually, every home. But when a product represents such innovative technology, forget selling it - it can be a major challenge just helping consumers understand it.
This is where in-person, experiential events come into play. Last year, MakerBot opened a store in New York, enabling consumers to see, touch, and feel printers in action.
The store, which has become a tourist attraction, offers lectures and design workshops for adults and children, educating everyone from the professional user down to the consumer level.
"In many people's minds, 3D printing is still a bit of science fiction," says Jenifer Howard, MakerBot's director of PR, "but once people understand the concept - that you're building up a digital design into a physical object - it is pretty clear."
This summer, 3D Systems took its tech to the streets in partnership with cellphone manufacturer Motorola.
The MakeWithMoto campaign involved introducing young people at 12 universities and four Maker Faires to the latest prototypes - including the company's Cube 3D printers.
MakerBot extends the in-person experience globally via appearances at exhibitions including 3D Printshows in London and Paris.Traditional outreach
Aside from in-person events, all of MakerBot's sales have been through its own website and a network of international distributors. Partnerships with Microsoft, Amazon, Nokia, and the Museum of Modern Art's design store, as well as video tutorials on YouTube, have helped increase brand visibility.
Meanwhile, 3D Systems has roughly 500 resellers, which are provided with co-marketing funds to get out and develop their local market. The brand's PR team engages through direct outreach with early adopter tech media, mainstream newspapers, and nationwide and local outlets.
"We evolve rapidly on the product and services side," says Alyssa Reichental, manager, global media relations, 3D Systems. "Our communications strategy and content has to change very quickly, so it works best for us to keep PR in-house."
One new service 3D Systems launched in April is 3DMe, customizable full-color 3D printed figurines featuring a customer's photo-realistic head atop anything from costumed superheroes to athletes, made from a two-photo upload on its cloud-printing software and retailing for $64.99.
This translates into endless PR opportunities for 3D Systems - for example, the brand partnered with Star Trek at Comic Con International in San Diego, allowing fans to create personalized 3D printed figurines of themselves in characters' uniforms from the show. 3D Systems did a similar partnership with Paramount Studios.
"People waited in line for more than an hour to get a figurine of the Predator [from the movie of the same name] holding their head with their spine hanging down," says Reichental. "These things get people excited about the magic of 3D printing - the next industrial revolution."