Don't bet against 3D printing taking off

There are plenty of people saying that 3D printing is going to be the next big thing and Nick Booth has been talking to a few and thinks they might be onto something

Sometimes a new technology is terribly let down by the use cases that people make for them.

In the early days of personal computers, enthusiasts would tell you they were great because “you can put your record collection on them.” Why would you want to do that? No wonder many people at the time concluded that, if that was the most compelling use case, those PCs were doomed. Now, according to analysts sales are slowing. So perhaps the naysays were right all along.

Who thought the Internet would take off? Oh no you didn’t! Not if you were sensible. Back in the early days, one evangelist explained how, in future, you could link your microwave to the Internet and download recipes to it. And keep tabs on your stock prices. That use case had a number of off putting flaws. Surely microwave users are not the right demographic for cooking instructions. And who wants to read stock tips from their microwave oven?

For years, nobody could ever explain the benefits of data warehousing without repeating the same urban myth about how it exposed the relationship between nappies and beer sales. If you’d spent bezillions of pounds on a data warehouse, and this was the biggest story it came out with, you’d be severely disappointed. Especially since this wasn’t even an exclusive.

There’s a similar marketing myth doing the rounds about big data. It involves a study into street lighting and crime. In the last week two vendors have claimed this revelation as their work.

These marketing myths makes you lose faith in a product. Which is a shame because, according to experts, the Internet did quite well in the end. If only they’d made a better job of explaining its benefits!

It’s easy to dismiss 3D printing as the work of fantasists. Once again, the examples given are pretty lame. Will the killer office application really be recreating your bottom in 3D after a few drinks at the Xmas party? Is the photo-copier going the way of the dodo, the mainframe and the sandwich toaster?

Who knows?

Distributors seem to be buying into this and they usually know what they’re doing. Ingram signed a deal with MakerBot to sell its Replicator 2 Desktop 3D printer and Digitizer Desktop 3D Scanner to American resellers.

Meanwhile Midwich has scooped 3D Systems as it plans to take three dimensional printing into the education market. The fiendishly cunning Darren Lewitt has spent 22 years in the audio visual market, so he must know a thing or two. 

So what’s happening? Are teachers and university professors going to start reproducing their bottoms in 3D at the Xmas party? Is there a sustainable market for this kind of thing?

Econolyst, a research and advisory firm, has specialized in 3D printing and additive manufacturing for nearly two decades. It’s been the perennial ‘technology of the future’ but in the last three years it has come alive.

Does 3D printing require a lot of added services like support, installation, integration. “At the industrial level, yes,” says Phil Reeves, Econolyst’s managing director. Like all production technologies require regular planned maintenance and suffer from unplanned downtime. So there’s service margins aplenty.

Econolyst advises clients to base their business models on a maximum of 80 per cent use allowing an annual maintenance budget of up to 10 per cent machine cost per annum. Installation takes between two to five days depending on the machine. Which is all good. The only disappointment being that integration is pretty much instant, with all machines being network compatible.

Maybe you could persuade the client to download some stock tips. Still there are enough maintenance jobs to keep you busy anyway.

Laser systems suffer from laser or optical train failure. Print based systems can suffer from blocked jets and mask based projection systems can suffer from lamp failure, says Reeves.

Some systems struggle with geometries – such as thin wall sections. For large volume parts, build time can also be very slow, resulting in expensive parts. Like 2D printing, there is enormous money to be made in the consumables.

“If you look at the accounts of the listed companies like 3D Systems, Stratasys, Arcam and Exone, it is clear that materials revenue plays a very important part of their business,” says Reeves. “At the moment, materials are priced on the high side and lower prices would stimulate greater technology adoption. However, we have seen very little evidence of material cost reduction in recent years.”

A telling detail is that companies like Stratasys sell their ABS material at over $250 per Kg, when the same material (perhaps not of the same quality) can be bought for a consumer 3D printer for less than $50. The same material for injection moulding would be less than $5 per Kg, says Reeves.

“In short – yes there is money to be made, but it is a competitive and controlled market space,” he says.

What skills do you need to get into this market?

3D Printing is already a broad eco-system – that ranges from enabling software tools and support technologies (like scanning), through to machines and materials and then parts. There are different supply chain models emerging, with some companies opting to outsource everything, with others developing in-house capacity and capability.

“There is no one skill set that is needed in this market,” says Reeves. “We need software and mathematics skills to deal with computing issues, supply and logistics people to work out how to get mass customised products to the consumer and people skilled in product and service ideation to work-up new products and business models.”

There is a lot of room in this eco-system. But you need a skill to start with, says Reeves. But is this an exciting market to be in?

“Without a shadow of a doubt, we have been in this sector for 20-years,” says Reeves. “The first 17-years were exciting - the last 3 have been amazing. The next 10 will be mind blowing. I genuinely believe we are just scratching the surface in terms of uses and applications.”

One of the pioneers braving this new territory is Amir Mohsen Abdolrazaghi. His business plan is to take commissions from high-end clients in the interior design, architecture, jewellery, medical, industrial and film fields. He then shares them with a network of 3D artists, industrial designers and other specialised designers, who bid for the work. The winner takes the job and Amir’s company will print the product.

Will that take off? Stranger things have happened. Look at the Interweb. While the rest of us were photocopying our bottoms, some saw the bigger picture in the audiovisual market. Now it’s in 3D.  

Next Steps

Possibilities for 3D printing

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