From a virtual home-improvement simulator to a multi-lingual customer-service robot, Lowe's Innovation Labs have brought to life customer solutions that are rooted in science-fiction. Today, the retailer unveils the third project out of its labs: 3D printing.
Compared to robots and "Star Trek"-inspired augmented reality, the concept is deceptively simple. But Lowe's is creating more than just a 3D printer, according Kyle Nel, exec director of Lowe's Innovation Labs. The retailer aims to make 3D printing and scanning easy enough for shoppers to use that they can run wild with their home-improvement ideas.
The simple, user-friendly design kiosk breaks 3D printing down into three steps, where users can select a product, customize the design and print it in the material of their choice.
"It makes it very easy for the average person to be able to take something that's in their head and solve a need that they have," said Mr. Nel. "If you can take red eye out of a photo you can create pretty much anything."
Let's say you have a broken wall sconce that was made in the '40s or a faceplate that has been discontinued. With Lowe's 3D technology, created in partnership with the Mountain View, Calif.-based startup Authentise, you can bring the items in, scan them and print them. You can also modify the design, if, for example, you like different aspects of two door knobs or need to scale the dimensions.
Lowe's also has a network of printers, allowing shoppers to print their ideas in almost any material -- from plastic to stainless steel to gold. Some items will be printable from inside the store, while others will be sent out to third-party vendors.
Other retailers, like Staples and UPS, also offer in-store 3D printing. But their services are geared toward 3D printing "enthusiasts" and people who have at least a basic understanding of the technology, said Mr. Nel. In most cases, customers have to come with a file of their design.
Lowe's service is meant to help customers with no knowledge of 3D printing create something from scratch or from a scanned item. It offers a small list of templates to get the ball rolling and specially-trained sales associates are on hand to help. Customers can also take their designs home, work on them and bring them back to be printed.
"Most people have never even seen a 3D printer and even fewer have actually used one," said Mr. Nel. "It removes that barrier. This is a huge step in the right direction of making 3D printing accessible to everybody."
The service, which begins testing today at a Lowe's-owned Orchard Supply Hardware store in Mountain View, Calif., also solves a merchandising problem for Lowe's. The retailer can't stock every single item a customer might want, because it's not logistically feasible. "We're buying things in order to satisfy the needs of the majority of the customers," said Mr. Nel. "It's impossible to have every permutation of what someone might want." But with 3D printing, Lowe's can offer shoppers almost anything they're looking for.
"It's a very freeing thing to know that you're only limited by your imagination," said Mr. Nel.
The project stems from the Lowe's Innovation Labs' first effort -- the Holoroom, a home-improvement simulator with 3D and augmented reality technologies -- and builds on its second project, the OSHbot, which was equipped with a 3D scanner to help customers quickly find miscellaneous items.
"It comes from same basic idea that people want to be able to visualize their space," said Mr. Nel.