Commercial Printing Firms Share Their Thoughts on the Opportunities of 3D Printing
For those naysayers who believe that the 3D printing moniker is an accident of nomenclature, that it is truly additive manufacturing bearing little or no resemblance to the ink-on-substrates graphic arts, Paul Gardner has a little news for you. It may not be ink on paper but, as practices go, the director of innovation at Salt Lake City-based Hudson Printing believes there are more fundamental similarities than differences.
In fact, Gardner—who heads up the Disruptive Print Group on LinkedIn—has worked with a number of colleagues and industry types to hammer out what they see as the true definition of printing, 2015-style. “To deposit a material or change its state in an addressable and repeatable manner for the purpose of communication, decoration or fabrication.” Gardner and friends maintain that these are the core functions of print, while the oppositely opinioned view it as additive manufacturing.
Ignoring semantics, and without summoning Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker to settle the question over a light saber battle, the larger issue remains this: Now that 3D printing has a few years under its belt, from a mainstream perspective, will it ever gain traction among the core of traditional printers? Two things seem abundantly clear in addressing this question.
- There is little evidence to suggest 3D printing is about to take off anytime soon. Despite the rock-bottom entry point—a curio version can be had for a couple grand, while a production-level machine runs less than $40,000—and tremendous level of mainstream media exposure, adoption levels remain low for the traditional printing community.
Why? As much as a curiosity as it is, there just isn’t a need for 3D among your customers. Your salespeople cannot sell it, because it is too far outside the realm of their comfort zone. It takes a forward-thinking marketing/creative mind to look deep into a client’s business and anticipate a need. This is a C-level conversation.
Whether it’s called printing or additive manufacturing, 3D does not present an unusual degree of difficulty for equipment operators. Once the manufacturing process commences, it’s a pot that does not require watching. Thus, you’re not pulling operator attention away from other devices.
- All that said, these are also reasons that 3D printing is brimming with optimism. The realm of possibilities is, indeed, endless. The key to success appears to be finding an addressable niche, which may or may not exist with the current register of businesses that buy printing-related products.
It is easy to dismiss 3D and its hype. This is a technology that is front and center in the public conscience. Digital printing didn’t come flying out of the starting gate, you’ll recall, though 3D is more of a distant cousin. One of the biggest barriers to acceptance is perception, and until a traditional printer cashes in with a savvy application, skepticism will continue to dominate this ancillary side street.
Gardner, for one, does not need convincing of 3D’s potential. Less than two years ago, Hudson Printing invested $2,500 in a two-color CubeX Duo, with a resolution of 125 microns and a build area of 10x10˝. The machine was smartly placed in the front lobby of the business, as a conversation starter with clients. As production goes, it’s been used to churn out dinosaurs, a pirate ship and a topical representation of the Rocky Mountains.
Forget about hipster furnishings and other accoutrements to dress up the reception area. Gardner feels the $2,500 was money well spent to move the 3D conversation along.
“Our approach was: how do we get to the people inside our existing customer organizations who would find it interesting?” Gardner says. “The request (for 3D) is not going to come across the desk of someone in charge of procuring print. They might get a project where 3D printing might help achieve the goal or solve the problem and not recognize it. So, there is value in educating the buyer, educating the purchasing team and say, ‘Here’s a different way of thinking about something.’ ”
Thus far, Hudson Printing has been queried by three customers for help with 3D projects. Two of the clients have their own 3D printers, including an architectural firm, but are looking to Hudson for guidance and assistance. Even without an industrial scale model 3D printer, the CubeX has proven to be an igniter for Hudson. Gardner equates its acquisition with purchasing a small press, a way to open doors.
The 3D manufacturing process draws comparisons to traditional printing. There is a preflighting process—different though it may be—that requires the input and raw materials to be properly orchestrated. The 3D filament is, in a sense, the ink and substrate. But while ink and paper may represent a third to half of your job’s cost, it is virtually 100 percent of your cost with 3D.
“Labor is not as much of an expense,” Gardner relates. “We’re just playing with plastic; once you start to use certain metals, it gets costly. Preflighting has always been an engineering process; now it’s even more so. We have a lot to learn.”
The 3D aspect is just one piece of Hudson Printing’s overall transformation, which includes new HP Indigo and HP T330 digital presses. Its staffing level has increased by more than 10 percent in the past two years as the firm continues to invest in both new technology and bright employees, and Gardner feels there is an opportunity to take its 3D initiatives to the next level.
Gardner feels it behooves all printers to take a long, hard look at the potential of 3D printing. Besides, as risk factors go, it stands as one of the smallest a manufacturer can take.
“If you have ‘printing’ on your building and you don’t have a 3D machine in your lobby, you’re just being stupid,” he maintains. “What else has come along recently that gets people excited about print? I’m 54 years old, and I haven’t seen a technology come close to 3D as far as getting non printers excited about printing.
“I probably skim 20 3D-related articles per day. What it’s going to look like 5-10 years down the road is beyond my comprehension. But, it’s better than having a letterpress from grandpa’s garage in your lobby.”
One of the newer converts for 3D technology is trade printing giant 4over, which earlier this year announced its foray into the specialty offering. Patrick Green, senior director of market development for the Glendale, California-based firm, notes that due to the disparity between the many kinds of equipment on the market, 4over opted to incorporate an array of machines that will allow for flexibility and variety in applications. As a result, this modular approach will allow 4over to penetrate the market faster.
“Our initial 3D roll-out focused on our Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) production capabilities,” Green explains. “These systems allow us to offer production-grade thermoplastics used in many traditional manufacturing processes, yet without the oppressive costs and time requirements of standard tooling methods. Our FDM-printed products are mechanically durable, dimensionally stable and highly cost-effective, allowing users to create multiple iterative designs and to test frequently.”
4over has spent the past few years doing its homework on the 3D printing and additive manufacturing industry as a whole, and the company is convinced the technology has a bright and perhaps prominent place among the trade printer’s offerings moving forward. The on-boarding process with selection and implementation has been fairly smooth thus far, Green notes, and one of the pivotal variables was having a 3D leader train 4over’s support staff and provide consultative services.
Green believes that buyers of 2D print products also provide a great opportunity from a 3D perspective. The ability of 4over to help its customers identify areas of opportunity will go a long way in determining how successful the company will be with its new platform.
“3D printing is a big business and many of the vertical markets are massive, including automotive, architecture, aerospace, consumer products and manufacturing,” Green notes. “With our help, our customers can actively solicit these industries with the appropriate technology for the application, rather than fitting the desired application into a specific 3D technology.”
Green and 4over fully expect the 3D market to exceed $20 billion in total revenue by 2020, with demand for the design and rapid prototyping of parts, products and tooling as the main catalyst. From enterprise-level manufacturers to the home user, opportunities abound.
“Furthermore, shipments of 3D printers have increased exponentially in recent years, with entry-level machines now available for the masses,” he says. “This elevated awareness and availability of 3D print applications will continue to broaden consumer understanding and utilization, as well as drive industry growth going forward.”
One of the true pioneers of 3D printing in our industry is Jim Corliss, part-owner of Braintree Printing, which hails from the Massachusetts town of the same name. Corliss grabbed headlines three years ago when his firm obtained a Stratasys Dimension 1200es production-level 3D printer. While the machine has provided a solid return on its $40,000 investment, and Corliss has become the face of 3D printing for our industry, the company is unlikely to take its foray into 3D printing to the next level.
Don’t get Corliss wrong; he loves 3D work and (like Gardner) sees an endless array of possibilities for businesses willing to roll up their sleeves and ferret out possible applications and niches. For example, he cites a new company that services the medical litigation field, providing models of body parts that need to be produced as a visual aid in courtroom settings.
But while the company still gets calls on the technology from curious hobbyists, the technology is unlikely to expand its role as a profitable bit player in Braintree’s operation. “In order to be in the 3D business, you need to have multiple machines, utilizing different processes and different types of (filament),” he says. “You can’t buy a $50,000 machine and think you’re in the 3D prototyping biz. You have to look at a bunch of different machines.”
Braintree Printing’s 3D printer uses ABS plastic (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene). The production process is serenely slow; a chess piece, for example, took upwards of five hours to produce. Fortunately, again, labor isn’t a factor and thus doesn’t play a determining role in pricing. In general, Corliss prices jobs as a 4x or 5x multiple of the cost of the consumables.
The main caveats are hedges against high expectations. Making a profit is not difficult, as the novelty still hasn’t waned. But a provider needs to find its place in the 3D world, and the race is on to discover the next great application.
“If you think as a printer, you’re going to put one of these machines in and service a demand that’s not being met, you’re making a mistake,” Corliss admonishes. “The people who want 3D prototypes already have great sources. They don’t need you.”
The design engineers in the manufacturing world, he notes, have invested in computer-aided design and engineering software such as SolidWorks. They would typically represent the biggest pool of 3D tech buyers.
“For us in the printing business, if it was not commonly referred to as 3D printing and was called 3D prototyping—which is a more accurate description—we would have no interest in it whatsoever,” Corliss remarks. “But, because it’s called printing, the antennae perk up and we have an interest.”
For now, while interest doesn’t appear to be fading in the eye of the public, it hasn’t caught fire with the printing industry, either. That could soon change.
A printer with an entrepreneurial bent could bring 3D technology in-house and develop new and unexplored uses for this technology. New, interesting (and profitable) uses for 3D technology continue to be developed, Corliss notes.
“One big plus for us in the printing industry is that 3D equipment is easy to install,” he says. “After all, we already have a staff, a commercial location, a website, a network, the ability to receive big files and a general high level of comfort in dealing with files. So we in the printing industry are 75 percent there—a 3D device is, at the end of the day, just another printing device that we would be adding to an existing network.” PI