The Future Is Fotomat

Remember Fotomat? Well for those too young to remember or don’t know what the space behind the photo kiosks at CVS is all about, the process went a little something like this:

  • You took pictures with a film camera.
  • You took the roll of film out of your camera and left it at a Fotomat store or photo-developing counter in a larger store
  • You would come back a few days later and pick up your pictures

And you would go through all of this because

  • Photo-printing equipment was too large, complicated and expensive to have in your house.

Which brings me to 3D Printing. On one hand you might be hearing enormous buzz about how 3D printing is the future of personal home creation. Like 2D printers but 1D better. With the same volume though, you can hear people saying that 3D printing is too expensive and complex to be a mass trend.

My hypothesis is that there’s a middle ground, and that middle ground is the Fotomat model. You start with a digital 3D file. Maybe you created it, maybe someone sent it to you via e-mail, or maybe you downloaded it from the web from a brand or product website. Maybe you modify it before printing, maybe you take it as is. In any case, you upload it to a company with physical retail locations (or bring it in on a USB stick). There, at one central place, for a fee, your object is printed for you. And you can then pick it up along with milk and soap.

Staples has just announced a foray into this model. You upload a file to them, they print it, and then you either pick it up or have them mail it to you. They’ve even branded the effort with the word “Easy” baked right into the name.

I’d argue that if this type of service is executed well, it could spread to a wide variety of large chain retailers. This doesn’t mean a dim view for personal 3D Printers though; it just means that there could be an interim, Fotomat-like step in between where we are today and wide adoption.