Early 3D Adopters: Who's Doing 3D Printing?March 2014 By Heidi Tolliver-Walker
Everywhere you look, people are talking about 3D printing. But talk is cheap. Are there any commercial printers who have actually invested in 3D printers? Are they using them to produce commercial jobs? If so, what markets are they serving?
The numbers of 3D printers installed at commercial print shops is still quite small. Most devices are purchased by hobbyists, online operations catering to consumer projects, and service bureau-type installations servicing engineers and prototype designers in the medical, industrial and manufacturing markets.
3D printing is, however, starting to find its place in the commercial printing marketplace. Just as in the early days of digital printing (back when Cindy Crawford ruled the runway and neon colors were all the rage), commercial printers with 3D machines are trying to figure out not just the capabilities of the technology, but what applications will become profit centers. The UPS Store and Staples recently garnered headlines for their investment in 3D printing, but theirs are not necessarily models that other printers can follow.
The challenge does not come from the output technology. 3D printers themselves are pretty much plug-and-play. Whether it's an inexpensive hobbyist device or a more robust commercial 3D printer, simply plug it into your network and print. It's the 3D design requirements and ability to identify market opportunities that create the bumps in the road.
Still, not all printers are waiting until they have it all figured out. Salt Lake City-based Hudson Printing didn't. Paul Gardner, director of innovation, had been brought on board to help reposition the company in the eyes of customers. "Hudson Printing is a wonderful, 100-year old business, and we want to start building it in new ways so it's still here 100 years from now," Gardner says. One of the first things he did was buy a 3D printer.
Gardner had been told that the company's biggest risk was to do nothing, so he did something. He birthed the idea of the Hudson Print Lab—an area of the company that would be full of cool print gear. "A 3D printer was one of the first things we imagined going in there," he adds. "I wanted something to build cool projects that would put a smile on someone's face without landing us in jail."