Lowe's brings 3-D printing to home improvement

Tell a group of science fiction writers to imagine the future of retail and what will they come up with?

It's shaping up to be a world entrenched in virtual reality, robotic sales associates and now, the ability to 3-D print custom items for your home, Lowe's Innovation Labs has learned.

Orchard Supply Hardware’s new 3-D printing kiosk.
Source: Lowe’s Innovation Labs
Orchard Supply Hardware’s new 3-D printing kiosk.

In the latest project to come out of the home improvement store's innovation labs, Lowe's Orchard Supply Hardware store in Mountain View, California, on Wednesday will debut 3-D printing and scanning services that let shoppers customize their home accents and fixtures.

With the help of one of three 3-D printing specialists, shoppers will be able to choose the color, shape and materials to build door handles, cabinet knobs and other products that match their home's aesthetic, either at the Mountain View store or on Osh.com.

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In what Lowe's calls a first for a retail store, visitors to the California shop can also scan out-of-production antiques, or even fragments of a broken object that can be pieced back together, to create 3-D models for printing.

The project is being done in partnership with Authentise, a 3-D printing company based in Mountain View.

"This is specifically designed not for the 3-D printer enthusiast," said Kyle Nel, executive director of Lowe's Innovation Labs. "[We] wanted a full service that would allow regular folks to take an idea they had in their head and customize objects in an easy way."

Although 3-D printers have been around for about 30 years, most people have never even seen one, let alone used one, Nel said. That's because the technology is cumbersome to operate, and it can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars to buy a printer.

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The barrier to entry drops substantially through Orchard Supply's solution, Nel said. Though prices vary depending on the size of the object printed and the material used, projects printed in basic plastic can range between $5 and $20. These costs predictably rise if shoppers choose pricier materials such as stainless steel, titanium or gold.

Timing also varies based on the complexity of the project, Nel said, adding that a simple plastic project could be completed in as little as five hours.

The test is expected to run for about six months. So far there are no plans to expand the service to other Orchard Supply or Lowe's stores, but depending on customer reaction, a larger rollout could happen down the road, Nel said.

The project is the latest in a series of innovations from Lowe's lab. In late 2014, the company introduced robotic shopping assistants in an Orchard Supply Hardware store in San Jose, California. Earlier that year, Lowe's launched a 30-by-30 virtual reality room that allowed shoppers to view a 3-D version of their renovation plans.

It has since expanded the "Holoroom" concept to a second location in the greater Toronto area. Nel said thousands of people have used the technology, adding it's been particularly popular with contractors. The professional segment represents about 30 percent of Lowe's business.

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Creating custom items for shoppers is a growing trend for retailers, thanks in part to millennials' penchant for items that are made uniquely for them. Nike, for example, allows shoppers to choose the material, color and other elements of their sneakers through its NikeiD technology.

In a 2013 Intel report that examines the history of retail, as well as where it's headed, the technology firm predicted that 3-D printing will play an integral role in the future of shopping.

"Production can exist anywhere, so design can be localized to the needs of the community," the report said. "As more products become uniquely produced for the individual, the need for retailers to carry inventory will diminish but the opportunity for them to offer 'print on demand' will grow."

Lowe's does not break out the sales for its 78-store Orchard Supply unit, but the company's overall sales rose 5.3 percent to $56.2 billion last year. Despite this growth, the home improvement store still trails Home Depot, which expanded sales 5.5 percent to $83.2 billion.