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3D printing a long term channel proposition

The professional side of the 3D printing market might have had a tough time recently but there is still plenty of life in the technology

There have been some question marks starting to hover over the 3D printing market recently as a result of the slowdown in the commercial space and the mixed financial results of the leading vendors.

Things have been different on the desktop side of the market with demand continuing to grow, rewarding those distributors that have moved into the space andgiven it some dedicated resources.

The price tag of the printers on the commercial side is one reason why it does not shift as many units as is the way that the technology is sold to meet specific production processes, ranging from plastic and resin to metal, making it quite a targeted sale.

But that side of the 3D printing world is facing some disruption with the arrival of Hewlett-Packard, which has indicated that it wants to play a major role in the market.

The prospect of something coming from the vendor next year is one that it has talked about at industry conferences. It has also made it clear 3D printing one of the areas where the freshly formed HP Inc will start looking for growth once it emerges from the HP split next month.

Chris Connery, vice president global analysis and research at Context, has been keeping a keen eye on the 3D printing world for the last few years and has charted the growth in the market.

One of the biggest problems that dogged the industry was that the brands that emerged as market leaders, coming largely from the US, were fresh names to the channel.

Then there was the split between the professional and desktop markets with only a couple of manufacturers playing across the whole piece. That left the channel getting to grips with two fairly long lists of US, Chinese and European vendors they had never heard of.

That problem is likely to persist for a while because almost a third of 3D printer sales in the personal desktop market are coming from Kickstarter projects.

But is is becoming more of a channel play and over the past 18 months some distributors have reacted to the growing market and have signed up some of the leading players. Context figures for last year show there is certaintly demand out there.

On the professional side of the market 13,000 3D printers sold in the commercial space in 2014. That market has taken a bit of a knock in the first half of this year with demand dropping and growth rates are now going to be under 10%

In the personal desktop market 175,000 units were sold in 2014 and this year it should be around the 250,000 mark with the market having enjoyed growth rates around 65%.

Because the units are not quite at the stage where they are filling warehouses and flying out the door a fair proportion of the distribution world has not yet made a move to supply the technology.

That has left a gap that has been exploited by specialists. "Local resellers have specialised in 3D printing and vertical resellers are looking at it even before the products get to a distributor," said Connery.

Where those vertical players have excelled is when they target those markets that either need the technology as part of their work or can exploit it for educational purposes.

"Engineers want to have one on their desks. Education is another big market," he adds that we are yet to see the killer app but the current crop of users could well be the one's to come up with that.

Aside from the joys of designing and producing the next batch of designs on desktop products the commercial space has the entry of HP to look forward to.

Where 3D printing works

Where 3D printing excels is when it can provide benefits that existing manufacturing processes might not ne able to offer

1. mass customisation - hearing aids, hip replacements etc require broadly the same components but with the ability to customise them to individual users

2. detail - there are things that you can make with a 3D printer that could not be made using traditional manufacturing methods

3. manufacturing on demand - the example is Walmart, which has to keep spare parts to white goods for years but can now keep records of them and print when required

Connery highlights the market leaders 3D Systems and Stratsys as the two that will pose the biggest threat to HP's plans to carve out some market share in the professional space.

Out in the professional space not only is HP making waves but also the growing popularity of printing metal and then using the results as finished parts. Firms like GE and Boeing are leading the way in using the technology and incorporating it into their manufacturing processes.

The impact that 3D printing could have on the supply chain is only just starting to be felt. For retailers looking to cut down on spare parts storage, using printing-on-demand as an alternative, the potential cost savings could be significant.

For the channel the large multi million pound professional products that HP wants to deliver might not be a reseller play but there is plently of action going on in the desktop space. More than enough to get the doubters reconsidering their stance on the technology.

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