Think of Arden Rosenblatt and Alejandro Sklar as the next best thing to elves at Santa’s workshop.
Through their innovation, youngsters can design a toy on a computer then watch it being manufactured on the spot.
Pittsburgh-based PieceMaker Technologies, the company that Carnegie Mellon University classmates Rosenblatt and Sklar founded in 2013, is delivering the capabilities of 3D printing to an appreciative customer base, with a couple of industry giants on board.
On the heels of a successful local venture with Toys “R” Us Inc., PieceMaker last month announced a partnership with Nickelodeon for on-the-spot manufacture of the likenesses of such favorites as Dora the Explorer, SpongeBob SquarePants and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Kiosks at which customers can take advantage of the technology are set up for the holiday season at four Toys “R” Us locations in eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, including one in Times Square.
“We’re bringing a capability that many people have never seen before,” Rosenblatt, Piecemaker chief executive officer, says. “Kids love this stuff. It’s more interactive. It’s everything a toy should be.”
Kids aren’t the only ones who think so.
“It’s a great fit for tweens,” Pam Israel, the company’s director of marketing, explains. “But you’d be surprised at how many adults are fascinated by it.”
A common fascination with 3D printing, to say the least – they both had bought printers prior to starting Masters degrees at Carnegie Mellon – got Rosenblatt and Sklar thinking about the possibilities.
“It was really exciting to us,” Rosenblatt recalls. “At the same time, the industry was more maker- and engineer-focused, and companies were not very upfront talking about that in marketing. There was no ecosystem, no content, no software to put it to good use.”
Rosenblatt and Sklar, now PieceMaker’s chief technology officer, wanted to rectify the situation by developing practical means for using the technology. They thought about aiming their efforts at a straight-to-home approach, but eventually focused on retailers as “a way to bring a ton of new product to their stores without any inventory,” according to Rosenblatt.
He uses the term “digital supply chain” to describe the implications: Instead of stocking shelves with items that may or may not move, companies might simply bring in PieceMaker kiosks and let the customers take care of business.
“Part of the beauty of the digital supply chain is there’s a different library in every store,” Rosenblatt says, explaining that the selection of products can be tailored to certain geographic areas.
For example, visitors to Times Square can choose to self-manufacture souvenir images of, say, the Statue of Liberty or Empire State Building, while patrons of the Toys “R” Us in the Philadelphia suburb of North Wales might prefer the Liberty Bell.
After all, personalization is a big part of what PieceMaker offers, from selecting the type of toy to picking colors and even inscriptions.
“People love that you can put your own name or message on it,” Israel says about any given toy. “They think, ‘This works for me.’ It’s not just what a generic company thought would be popular names this year.”
When Rosenblatt and Sklar started their company, they decided to set up shop not too far from Carnegie Mellon, in East Liberty.
“Pittsburgh has a really good ecosystem for what we do,” Rosenblatt says, citing the prevalence of robotics and software companies, along with “great manufacturing resources. It’s a very supportive community for startups.”
In fact, PieceMaker’s headquarters is in the same neighborhood as AlphaLab Gear, a startup incubator that offers hands-on programs with entrepreneurs – Sklar and Rosenblatt were among the first to complete the process – to work toward attracting investors.
Regionally, PieceMaker piloted its retail 3D printing at Toys “R” Us in Cranberry Township, along with two S.W. Randall locations and Playthings Etc. in Butler County.
The company is also collaborating with industrial printer manufacturer ExOne of North Huntingdon Township to use that company’s metals in the process.
“We hope to leverage what they do to bring new materials to the table,” Rosenblatt says.