Postmen of the future will deliver more than just bills, junk mail, and the incessant train of Amazon boxes as we approach the Christmas season. The UK's postal service, Royal Mail, today started a 3D printing trial at one of its central London offices, essentially aiming to give themselves more stuff to post through your door.
The company now lists a selection of 3D-printable products on its website, such as a novelty postbox desk tidy and postage stamp fridge magnet. You can also choose from a range of items by MyMiniFactory.com, like models of monuments from their "Scan The World" series. Of course, they'll all be delivered by Royal Mail.
Alternatively, you can take your own design into the New Cavendish Street delivery office to be printed there.
The initiative comes via a partnership with 3D printing company iMakr. A spokesman for Royal Mail told me the decision to trial 3D printing was due to the rapidly growing nature of the industry and the predicted role of delivery services. "Most people, we think, will actually order products online and expect these products to be sent back to them through the mail," he said. "If that is the way it's going to develop, then it makes sense for us to have a good look at the opportunity."
In some ways that's counterintuitive; 3D printers have been hyped as a way of eliminating the need to buy finished products. But that's only the case if you have one in your home. In the Royal Mail announcement, chief customer officer Mike Newnham suggested this was "prohibitively expensive" for many consumers, hence the idea of a mail-order service.
And if people are going for delivery, the recently-privatised postal service naturally wants in. As anachronistic as it might seem, we still don't have a much better way of fundamentally transporting physical stuff than what we've been doing for at least the past few centuries.
Delivery services do seem to be the way 3D printing is going, at least among general consumers. Click-and-print online services like Shapeways have been going for over five years now, and other companies whose business is delivery rather than the product itself have also shown interest.
Earlier this year, the US Postal Service put together a summary that suggested 3D printing could be worth $485 million to the agency, under the catchy slogan, "If It Prints, It Ships." Its competitor UPS already offers a 3D printing service, as does Swiss postal service Die Post. Amazon opened its own online 3D printing store in July.
But the Royal Mail spokesman said the company expected its main consumer to be small businesses (SMEs) who would design their own parts to be printed. "It's a cheap and easy way of getting these done, rather than having them bespoke engineered, or certainly cheaper than buying their own 3D printing machine," he said.
He added that Royal Mail already has accounts with many SMEs, which could give it an edge in that market.
There's no end date to the trial yet, but it's easy to see how it could be expanded if successful. Royal Mail already has the infrastructure in place, with 1,400 delivery offices across the country.
Picking up a personalised 3D print could one day be akin to collecting a missed delivery. Let's just hope the queues aren't as long.