The cybercafé is dead. Long live the 3D printing café?

At 3DLab Fab&Café you can eat pizza, sip a daiquiri and print Yoda’s head. It’s a brand-new business model -- but can it go global?
Written by Matt Chesterton, Correspondent (Buenos Aires)

BUENOS AIRES -- It’s 5pm in Buenos Aires and Ezequiel Mendoza, an industrial designer, is fabricating a prototype for a wearable GPS tracking device. For cows.

But that’s not the weird part. The weird part is that he’s doing it in a café.

Opened last August in trendy Palermo Soho, 3DLab Fab&Café, which sells everything from pizza to cocktails, was the world’s first 3D printing café and coworking space. Like the pioneering cybercafés of the early 1990s, 3DLab is a hybrid of the cutting edge and the comfy, offering access to an avant-garde technology in the most traditional of settings.

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Rodrigo Pérez Weiss (l) and Marcelo Ruiz Camauër

Founder Rodrigo Pérez Weiss embraces the analogy. “My business model is a kind of stew,” he says balancing a soda on a biodegradable plastic coaster (printed in-house, of course). “ I knew that if I opened a store that only sold 3D printers, I would go bankrupt. And I knew that if I opened a café that only sold food and drink, I would also go bankrupt. So I stirred every idea I had into a single pot.”

He might just have stumbled on a recipe for success. As of writing, up to 500 clients are using 3DLab every month, up from just a few score in the café’s early days. Seven out of ten come to use one of the six printers available, paying US$10-$40 an hour, depending on the brand. Revenue breakdown looks similar -- 70 percent from printer hire, the rest from food and drink sales.

Client testimonials suggest that the form of the café – it’s a bright, airy space that hits the sweet spot between hipster hangout and hobbyist’s grotto – may be as important as the function. “We use the printers themselves at least three times a week,” says Gonzalo Sánchez, co-founder with Mendoza of industrial design start-up Estudio Dtres. “But we’ve also found it to be an ideal place in which to meet prospective clients, helping us drum up new business.”

Having tested his hybrid concept in Buenos Aires, Pérez Weiss now plans to export it. By mid-2014, 3DLab Fab&Café franchises will be operating in Mexico City and Paraguay, with farther flung places like Moscow and Israel in the pipeline.

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Along with the brand and access to Pérez Weiss’s know-how, franchisees will receive the latest models from Argentine 3D printer manufacturers like Trimaker and Kikai Labs. The latter is a two-year-old company that was the first to mass produce 3D printers in Argentina, and expects to ship 400 units this year in its home country alone.

“3D printing is entering the mainstream,” says Marcelo Ruiz Camauër, Kikai’s founder and CEO. “Thanks to open-source design and patent expiration, small companies and individuals can buy technology from start-ups like ours for $1,600 that not so long ago would have set them back six figures.”

So will ever-cheaper hardware like Kikai’s kill the 3D printing café in the same way unmetered broadband and Wi-Fi slew the Internet café? Here the analogy collapses; “affordable” by no means correlates with “easy to use.”

“3D printers fail and jam quite easily so you need to have lots of spare parts,” says Rachel Park, editor of the influential 3Dprintingindustry.com. “At the coffee shop you have a place for experienced designers to get their hands on printers without having to outlay capital expenditure or maintenance costs.”

Park thinks this is a business model that could thrive globally, and points us in the direction of Berlin’s Dimension Alley, a 3D printing café that opened last December. Its British co-founder, Norma Barr, is excited and optimistic about the hybrid concept, which she terms a “function café”:

“3D printing cafés will appear all over the globe just as copy shops and Internet cafés did,” she says. “Unlike those, 3D printing shops will prevail because not everyone will have a 3D printer, especially for the desired range of materials, at home.”

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Dimension Alley, Berlin

Clearly, if 3D printing fulfills even a tenth of the promises being made for it – and Pérez Weiss admits that "this is the moment of maximum overhype” – cafés like 3DLab and Dimension Alley will proliferate. For some, additive manufacturing (as the process is sometimes known) is one of the tools of the “new industrial revolution”; to others it’s the next “trillion dollar industry"; for Jay Leno, 3D printing’s most famous aficionado, it’s “like The Jetsons.”

That’s in the future; “In five years we’ll have a real business,” says Pérez Weiss. In the here and now his core clientele consists of designers like Ezequiel Mendoza, who only half watches as his bovine beacon seemingly materializes out of thin air inside the hollow black box of a Maker T-125, by Kikai Labs. Satisfied that his prototype will fully exist in an hour or so, he puts on his fleece, drains his coffee, and leaves.

Photos: Justina Maiz Casas (main & 3DLab); Dimension Alley

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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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