3-D printing business takes selfies to new level

PHILADELPHIA — Julian Rinaldi knew he was onto something with serious entrepreneurial potential when his shop hadn’t even officially opened for business and someone wanted to make a purchase.

The person wanted to buy Rinaldi’s father. Well, a 3-D model of him, anyway.

Dressed in a suit and striking a confident pose — albeit standing just 9 inches tall — was Philip Rinaldi, chief executive of Philadelphia Energy Solutions LLC, in the window of his son’s storefront. It was such a spot-on likeness that the person passing by recognized him immediately and asked whether the figurine was for sale.

It wasn’t. Philip Rinaldi’s role was precisely what played out that day: to catch the eye of passersby and lure them into this odd new entrant on a street of startups, galleries, restaurants and shops.

PeoplePrints 3D is believed to be the only business in Philadelphia exclusively devoted to 3-D selfies. They come in three forms: head, half-body and full-body.

In this era of self-absorption and promotion enabled by Instagram, Snapchat and other sharing arenas of social commerce, three-dimensional selfies were only a matter of time.

Open since August, PeoplePrints 3D is already profitable, with monthly sales reaching $20,000, exceeding Julian Rinaldi’s expectations.

“I get multiple people in here every day saying it’s the coolest thing they’ve ever seen,” he said on a recent morning, in a shop whose display cases hold several sizes of himself and others. The native of Bridgewater, N.J., lives in an apartment upstairs.

While he thought 3-D selfies would be a hit with millennials, Rinaldi — who, at 33, is one of them — is thrilled that the idea appears to hold even broader appeal.

Fans have included grandparents, grieving pet owners, even a guy wanting to make his marriage proposal extra-memorable. He gave his beloved a three-quarter-inch miniature bust of himself on a ring with a white-gold band.

The growth potential is essentially limitless, Rinaldi said: “The market is every person on the planet.”

A graduate of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rinaldi majored in information technology and envisioned operating some sort of an online business. Instead, he dabbled in many ventures, including helping to open a restaurant, teaching winemaking, creating winemaking equipment and occasionally arranging charters for his family’s yacht.

Then “I kind of saw how 3-D technology was taking off,” Rinaldi said. “I really liked the technology and was trying to figure out a way you could make money with it.”

Though medicine, architecture and manufacturing were among the more common 3-D printing applications, “I just thought people would love to have models of themselves,” he said. His research uncovered competitors in California and New York and at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., but no one basing an entire business around it in the Philadelphia area.

An area company called BluEdge has offered 3-D selfies at Philly Tech Week the last two years “as kind of a marketing thing … a way to attract a more consumer-based client” to a 118-year-old printing company that has largely served architects, inventors and law firms, said Simonas Indrele, a 3-D consultant there. The business recently changed its name from NRI, or National Reprographics.

One 3-D customer Indrele served was an insurance salesman who got busts made of himself and used them as business cards, his contact information and title printed on his back. Another sent his busts to business meetings he could not attend “so he could be on the table,” Indrele recalled.

“Knowing the next generation of smartphones are going to have 3-D cameras built into them,” Indrele said, he expects 3-D selfies to proliferate.

Also sensing those prospects, Julian Rinaldi “came up with a business plan and dove right into it” about nine months ago. He found the retail space (a former umbrella shop), bought a full-body scanner consisting of 100 cameras, hired a couple of art-school students with 3-D printing experience, filled the front window with models and opened for business.

Because of the prohibitive cost of an advanced color 3-D printer — about $80,000 — Rinaldi is outsourcing the printing to a company in Long Island City, N.Y., for now. With plans to open another studio store in Philadelphia within six months and one in the suburbs within a year, he said he will likely buy a 3-D printer eventually to create the models in-house. His ultimate goal is to offer franchise opportunities.

Prices, detailed at peopleprints3d.com, range from $35 for a three-quarter-inch bust to a four-person, 9-inch-tall, full-body group for $658. A single 9-inch model goes for $230. Prices include free shipping directly to customers’ homes.

Models cannot be made from pictures. Subjects must be photographed (it takes only a few seconds) at PeoplePrints 3D, where artists touch up portraits before they are sent out for printing.

“It’s amazing how accurate it is,” Michael Cahill, a K-9 officer with the Philadelphia Police Department, said of a 7-inch model of his late partner, Gero, a 10-year-old German shepherd whose replica he had PeoplePrints 3D make in the fall. It was one week before Cahill, 39, a 17-year veteran of the force, had to put down Gero because of cancer.

The model, including the dog’s police badge, sits atop the box containing his ashes that Cahill keeps on the mantle of his home. “I have a ton of pictures of him,” Cahill said, “but this is, to a T, him.”

That’s the way Evan Kushin, 34, thought of his bust. He incorporated it into one of six whimsical engagement rings he surprised Morgan Kato, 31, with over the course of a week last summer before presenting her with a real diamond.

“I thought it was an interesting and unique idea,” said Kushin, a bartender who also works in events production. Evidently, Kato did, too. “She said, ‘Yes,’ I think seven or eight times.”

A variety of requests have been honored, including those wanting to pose wearing only body paint or a bikini. There are limits on the work PeoplePrints 3D can do.

“I get a lot of weight-reduction requests,” Rinaldi said. “If I could do that, I would be a lot thinner in my own models.”

Calling his son’s latest venture “consumer interaction touching the kind of psyches of millennials,” father Philip Rinaldi said he has lent his support — and his likeness in a variety of heights — to the cause because “I thought it was a really, really terrific idea.”

As an engineer, Philip Rinaldi envisions 3-D printing as “the wave of the future” in industry, and 3-D selfies as a “nice pathway of retail connectivity with young ones.”

They’re also pretty effective self-awareness tools, he said:

“When I saw how shabby my suit looked, I had to run out to my tailor.”

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