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Commercial Printer Details Pros, Cons of 3D Printing

August 2013 By Erik Cagle, Senior Editor
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What do Jim Corliss, Jay Leno and Barack Obama all have in common? All three, in their own way, have made a substantial commitment to the future of 3D printing.

Leno, the host of the "Tonight Show," may be the world's most famous owner of a 3D printer, using it to recreate obscure, esoteric and hard-to-find parts for his beloved classic cars. And President Obama made headlines back in May when he informed the nation that the White House wants to invest $200 million in 3D printing, an area he hopes would help spark growth in high-tech jobs.

But it's Mr. Corliss' exploits in the world of 3D that interests us the most. Corliss, owner of trade shop Braintree Printing in Braintree, MA, has the unofficial distinction of being the first printer to obtain a 3D printer for the purpose of doing jobs. Earlier this year, Braintree installed a Stratasys Dimension 1200es unit, which has largely been used to create prototypes for design engineers.

OK, so we have no way of verifying that Corliss is the Lone Ranger of 3D printing among print providers. The New England firm appears to have been the first printer through the wall on 3D, however, and while it may not land him on a commemorative postage stamp one day, it certainly has piqued the curiosity of his printer customers, who gathered and gawked at the machine during an open house this past spring.

"I just fell in love with the technology," Corliss admits. "I saw it as a combination of a marketing ploy and being able to make a couple of bucks. Telling (a potential client) that you print labels is not a conversation starter."

But tell someone you're a 3D printer, and the curious voice inflection kicks in. Sure, traditional print buyers—which, in Corliss' case, are also printers—are not generally going to have a need for 3D work. But what it says about Braintree Printing speaks volumes about its willingness to invest and take chances, all for the betterment of the client. And, while 3D printing has been around for the past 15-odd years, it's only been the past year or so when the technology began occupying front of mind with the general public.

"I always felt the way to survive and thrive in this business is to invest in what you do for your life's work," Corliss observes.

So Far, So Good

How has Braintree Printing done with its Dimension 1200es 3D printer? Not too bad, considering it's not an offering tailor-made for Corliss' customer base. The knock on 3D is that it is largely devoid of repeat business, with predominantly one-off projects coming through the door. Not true. One customer, a battery producer, has two or three offerings in the prototype stage. That client will produce a shell, go back and tweak it, then have Corliss produce another.

Regardless of the client, all jobs must be produced using 3D CAD (computer-aided design) programs. Solidworks is among the most popular titles. Some potential clients are obvious: design engineers, architects and for the medical field (as an alternative to hand-crafted models).

As for the cost of a 3D printer, the high-end models can range up to $200,000 or more. Corliss' entry-level model, when all told, came in just south of $50,000 in cost. He's averaged roughly $300 a week in jobs, and has enjoyed spikes as high as $2,400 in one recent week.

"It's going to be a long sell," Corliss admits. "You've got to, one by one, identify these customers. One challenge is that the people who do a lot of 3D work have their own printers. We can get those customers who only do it seasonally or need their overflow addressed."

One of the more unique pieces Corliss has produced is a presentation piece for a corporate event in which the president was honored. With the executive being an ardent chess player and a ping pong enthusiast, the piece was a ping pong paddle with a chess piece as the handle. Another client needed a model of a bridge for a building project. It was "printed" in six pieces, then put together.

Naturally, the hobbyist locals have been curious enough to inquire about one-off jobs, but Corliss doesn't want to encourage consumer jobs, nor is he particularly keen on reproducing model train parts or Dungeons & Dragons-type materials. That's the market $2,000 consumer models are aimed at addressing. Of course, if Leno's machine broke down and he needed a part ASAP...

"I can't predict the future, but we could easily put in another machine in six months," he notes.

One of Corliss' most ardent supporters is Marco Boer, vice president of I.T. Strategies in Hanover, MA, a 20-minute ride down Pilgrims Highway from the printer. Boer notes the firm has done a great job of marketing the technology via highway billboards (Route 93) and through direct mail pieces.

"A lot of these little jobs that they're getting are basically going to be money losing, because of the learning curve involved, but there are going to be a few gold nuggets in there," Boer remarks. "Because they're a successful shop, they can afford to take this risk. If they didn't already have a stable business, I think it would be really hard to open up a 3D-only print shop and make money at it."

Though Boer acknowledges the pain involved with being the first printer "through the wall," he also notes that early adopters of a technology tend to reap a very high profit margin. As an early Xerox iGen digital press user, Boer is not surprised to see Corliss taking a shot on 3D. "You need to be a bit of an adventurer to go down these paths, and (Corliss) seems to have it," he says.

While Boer sees a ready market for manufacturers who need rapid prototyping, and the Leno-headlining parts replacement niche has garnered much attention, it's the consumer market that has really thrust 3D into the national spotlight. But, the truth of the matter is, most people don't know their way around a 3D CAD program. After all, Boer points out that it's tough enough to get someone to compose a nice layout in Adobe InDesign and have it be graphically appealing. Perhaps anticipating the rise in demand, Boer notes that Microsoft is making a 3D programming tool available in the next version of Office.

As for B2B applications, Boer doesn't see a clear path to business. It is more of a circuitous path with many dead ends, he says. But that's the here and now. With the machines being financially friendly and the business market not exactly overrun with 3D service providers, it's a low-level risk compared to other ancillary products and services.

"You're looking at an 18- to 24-month learning curve before you come close to breaking even," Boer says. "That might not seem like a lot of time but, given all the other digital printing equipment pieces you can go out and buy—like a $15,000 inkjet t-shirt printer, where you're 'guaranteed' a return on investment in three to six months—for many print services providers an inkjet t-shirt printer is a lower risk, faster return on investment. A 3D inkjet printer investment is a bigger risk, potentially bigger reward." PI


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