Amazon’s Part Finder Could Lead to a 3D Print Revolution

Amazon’s new PartFinder in action

I’ve been playing with the new Amazon Part Finder, and had some thoughts about where this tech could go. 

Amazon Part Finder is a specialized service that’s embedded within their iOS app. As you likely know, their app is used for traditional shopping, often done through keyword entry. You type a phrase and then sort through a list of likely options. Maybe you’ll even find what you’re looking for. 

But their mobile app provides a few additional features. A camera mode enables you to take an image of a bar code, and they will automatically look up the product – very convenient! A more advanced image system can even recognize certain popular products in a few select categories. 

But now they’ve introduced “Part Finder” as an option. 

This mode takes an image of a part, apparently only nuts, bolts and the like at the moment, and attempts to locate products that match. 

They apparently use some artificial intelligence technologies behind the scenes, but when I used it, there seemed to be a combination of AI and you involved. Here’s how it works:

 Setting up to use Amazon's PartFinder
Setting up to use Amazon’s PartFinder
  • Launch the Amazon app
  • Hit the “camera” icon to start the imaging system
  • Select “Part Finder”, one of the options in the imaging system. If you don’t see these options, pull them up from the bottom
  • Place a flat sheet of white paper down in front of the camera
  • Place a penny on the sheet
  • Place your part just above the penny
  • Start scanning
  • The app will present some options
  • Select the best features to refine the search
 Amazon's PartFinder is buried inside their app's camera system
Amazon’s PartFinder is buried inside their app’s camera system

Amazon will then churn through their vast inventory and present to you some options for purchase. 

 A possible fit for a scanned part on Amazon's PartFinder
A possible fit for a scanned part on Amazon’s PartFinder

It’s a pretty cool system, and actually works not too badly. Of course, it will certainly be improved over time as such AI systems develop.

Now, what does this have to do with 3D printing? 

A lot, perhaps. 

One of the major problems holding back the use of the technology by the public is the inaccessibility of 3D models, particularly for spare parts. Today people have to do their own 3D modeling to develop spare parts. 

But what if you could have your Amazon app scan your part in the same way and instead of presenting you with physical options to buy a spare, present you with a 3D model download. You could then 3D print the part on your device and obtain the spare part immediately. 

There would be no shipping required (aside from the raw material for your 3D printer), and both Amazon and the part owner could be compensated. Certainly this would have to be done using some type of secure streaming print solution to avoid interception of the 3D model. There may also be a requirement for particular materials to be used to ensure an appropriately performing printed part. 

I don’t know if Amazon is considering this approach, but if so, it could create an enormous opportunity for 3D printing, for Amazon and for the companies selling the parts. 

One problem may be the ability to gain the participation of manufacturers, who may prefer to sell physical parts at higher margins. However, that’s an arithmetic problem that could potentially be solved by simply pricing the spare part appropriately. 

Currently, the Part Finder appears to be available to US Amazon customers, but not in other places. In Canada it’s not available, and I think I know why: THERE ARE NO PENNIES IN CANADA!

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