Photo courtesy of Creation Labs.

Could our region’s increasingly vacant shopping malls become a place where customers build rather than buy? Local maker and entrepreneur Aaron Hartman thinks so.

Last week, area business and political leaders joined Hartman at South Hills Village mall to celebrate the opening of Creation Labs, a maker space stocked with high-tech tools like 3D printers, modeling software and laser cutters.

Hartman (holding scissors) at the ribbon-cutting event with PA State Representative Natalie Mihalek and Bethel Park Mayor Jack Allen. Photo courtesy of Peters Township Chamber of Commerce.

In addition to selling 3D printing equipment and specially designed gadgets, Creation Labs sells memberships giving makers access to all on-site tools. A part-time teaching staff also offers classes ranging from basic modeling to more advanced engineering.

Hartman tells NEXTpittsburgh he first became interested in the technology six years ago, when he bought an early 3D printer for himself and his small children. “We’re kind of geeks, and we just make a lot of robot parts and other little contraptions,” he explains.

When it came time to order new filament for the machine (the equivalent of ink for a traditional printer), Hartman discovered that the closest merchant was in New York City. That’s when the idea for a Pittsburgh-based small business was born.

As Hartman points out, consumer demand for 3D printing-related products is already growing at an exponential rate. Total sales in the sector are expected to surpass $2.7 billion by the end of this year and top $3 billion in 2020.

“This is an emerging mega-trend that is eventually going to be on every street corner,” says Hartman, “like a Starbucks.”

At the same time, the changing face of the retail industry means that a wealth of vacant storefronts are now available and affordable for smaller entrepreneurs.

Creation Labs initially launched in 2018 as a pop-up space on the first floor of South Hills Village. A six-month lease was eventually extended, and now they’ve moved to a permanent home on the mall’s second floor.

“The mall is quite enthusiastic about me and my business plan,” says Hartman. “They view my business as the future of what the mall will become: more experienced-based.”

While the store’s classes and equipment are generally aimed at older makers (teens and above), Hartman says their clientele so far is an eclectic mix of age and skill levels. Currently they have about 70 members signed up.

“Cosplayers really like the store,” Hartman says.

Unlike many tenants at South Hills Village, Hartman is building his business outside of the traditional startup ecosystem. All of his capital came from friends, family and personal savings.

“I don’t have any investors. I don’t have bank loans,” he says. “I just have what I think is a good business model and enthusiastic patrons.”

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.