"I've been in the retail pack-and-ship and business services arena for 30 years, and whenever something new comes along I try to correlate it to past evolutions of technology," Spindel explained.
"When I start looking at 3D printing services operationally, it's not that much different from the other services we offer. Copyright protection is an issue in the copy business, but it was more problematic in the 1990s when people would bring in books, put them down on the glass and start copying pages. We have to consider who owns what's being printed. That's not a lot different than 3D."
In traditional publishing, there are people who create templates with a royalty structure that provides rights to buy photos from the photographer, for example. "All these models that have been created help people understand that someone owns the intellectual property," Spindel said. "There are 3D printable files; some are free, others you pay a use royalty. If this is going to get more widespread, there will have to be a method similar with the ability to create a file for output which you purchase to use. It's certainly more complex than a 2D file."
Spindel looks at the evolution of facsimile technology, as an example, that was primarily used by the legal community as a way to send legal paperwork quickly. The Internet was originally developed for educational institutions, he noted. As the technology found broader uses, costs came down, access improved and it eventually became very widespread.
"3D printing will either be a flash in the pan - something kind of neat for 3D fab engineers, inventors or hobbyists - which then means the market will remain narrow. Or it's going to do what other technologies have done - evolve itself through mass consumption. I think the breakthrough will be 3D scanning. You don't have to create a file. It will become like faxing an item - scan an item in LA and print it in Tokyo. It will find more uses than the current market serves."
Spindel noted that the company's primary concern is its business model staying relevant for its franchisees. "We know what happened to video stores and travel agencies," he said. "If scanning capabilities get better we have a model like Pandora and iTunes. The industry will be sorting all these copyright issues as time goes on."
"Mattel may not tell me this today, but if there are output devices Mattel will have a website that you can download a toy file and pay for it, then print out the toy," Spindel added. "We're always respectful of any type of licensing. But ability for someone with a brand - with IP - that once there is penetration into the market place and 3D printers become more accessible, companies may be doing the same thing that iTunes is doing, only with toys."
Spindel said that Dave Thorson, the franchise owner in Minneapolis who has installed 3D printing in the PostNet store, was "very passionate" about the technology. However, they will test the model in that facility to see if the technology is feasible in other PostNet stores before making a final determination about it. "Do we have the technological knowledge to be able to offer this in other centers to offer this as a consistent service? That's something we'll have to determine, then make good decisions in how we implement it."
Spindel believes that 3D printing belongs in a business environment like PostNet. "We understand the concept of a customer coming in with a file and printing out something. It's something we've done over the past 21 years in franchising," he commented. "We understand copyrights so it's not that great of a departure from what we're doing now and doing it in a responsible way."