Early 3D Adopters: Who's Doing 3D Printing?
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."
Gardner took his $5,000 budget and authorized one of the company's interns to research the options and make the purchase. "We saw it as a way to get our feet wet and begin to understand the technology," explains Gardner. "There are people out there who understand 3D printing deep and wide, but they aren't in the printing realm."
The goal was to find a device that would sit out in the front lobby, draw attention and create conversations with customers. "We wanted something that had a finished enclosure and looked nice—something that would be safe so families could bring their kids in to see it running without any risk of them getting hurt," he says.
In the summer of 2013, the company purchased a CubeX Duo, a two-color machine that offers a resolution of 125 microns and a build area of 10x10˝. The Duo uses extrusion technology, which Gardner felt was safe and offered the least learning curve.
Responsibility for running the machine is spread around the staff. Hudson's HP operator, lead IT staffer and "mail guru" keep the device printing so the company can keep learning. The team primarily prints open source designs, but they have also experimented with 3D modeling software like CubeX, Sketchup and Blender. Projects have included a pirate ship and dinosaur and rhinoceros heads, as well as a glow-in-the-dark globe with raised continents. Some projects take 20 to 40 hours to print.
While the shop is still learning what the 3D printer can do, having the CubeX Duo in the lobby changes how visitors perceive Hudson Printing. "They start asking questions, and they view us in a different light," Gardner notes. (For the winter months, however, the CubeX has been moved into the warmer Indigo pressroom. "The winter air was causing trouble with feeding the plastic filament to the extrusion heads," according to Gardner. "We're working on solving the problem and plan to move it back to the lobby soon.")
Ultimately, Gardner hopes to have in the neighborhood of $500,000 in disruptive print technologies alongside the CubeX in the Print Lab. Other technologies under consideration include a flatbed UV printer and a golfball printer that prints directly on people's fingernails. "These are things you'd never find in your average print or copy shop!" he points out.
While Gardner characterizes Hudson's use of the CubeX as "just playing" (for now), it has started the wheels spinning for where this could lead in the future. "We have one customer talking to us about the first 3D printer they buy," he reveals. "It's an architectural firm. They are looking for a small, low-priced machine to do prototyping. We asked, 'Don't you want bigger build volumes? Higher resolutions?' They responded, 'Why would we when we can just come to you for those things?' It gave us a glimmer into what the path of the future might be."
In this, it's not so unlike a print shop. "Anyone can print something on their own," Gardner concludes. "They have a desktop printer at home or work, but they get involved with a professional printing company when they need wider capabilities, better quality and higher volumes. We don't have to be the only 3D solution for a client. But maybe the best customers will be those who already have 3D printing and need something more robust."
The UPS Store
The UPS Store-Kearny Mesa, located in San Diego, is using its 3D printer to transform customer perception, as well. That's why it, too, keeps its printer in the lobby. But as a franchise, The UPS Store is able to draw traditional work from the surrounding area—everyone from engineers and prototype designers to hobbyists.
Burke Jones, owner of the local franchise, has been in the printing industry for 35 years. Because of his background, this and his other franchises look more like traditional printing operations and act more like entrepreneurial businesses. He installed the Kearny Mesa franchise's first 3D printer, a single-color Stratasys uPrint, in August 2013 as part of a nationwide test run by UPS.
Today there are six 3D printer installations in The UPS Stores around the country: San Diego; Menlo Park, CA; Washington, DC; Frisco, TX; Lisle, IL; and New York.
The UPS Store brand has been a tremendous boon to Jones' investment. Since his store was featured in Forbes, his 3D printer has stayed busy. "Between here and Los Angeles, there are lots of 3D print shops," Jones says. "But people are willing to travel significant distances to bring their ideas to us.
"Once they come in and see 3D printing in front of them, it's almost like part of their brain activates that wasn't active before." He points to one of his customers who appeared recently on the television show "Shark Tank," looking for a deal on a plastic cover that slides over a computer's camera to protect from cyberspying. "He had a dream and saw it come to life here," Jones says.
Once people are in the store for 3D printing, it presents an opportunity for the staff to convert them into printing customers, as well. "As a printer, what distinguishes us from others?" Jones asks. "We can do 3D, as well. The same goes with 2D. Many people come to The UPS Store to ship a package and end up printing a part. I'm not going to get these people into my store very often. From that aspect, 3D (capabilities have) been great."
To service this customer base, Jones recognized that his store had to offer 3D design. He brought in a full-time 3D print manager, who is also a designer. "You can't print a file you don't have," Jones says. In addition to designing files from scratch, the 3D print manager also tweaks "almost printable" files brought in by amateurs using software like Google Sketchup before they are output in the shop.
The UPS Store has its Stratasys uPrint in the front window where people walking by can see it working. "While the technology isn't new, it's new to people on the street."
This level of trust extends beyond the general public to larger companies, as well. "When their own machines are full, engineers and prototype designers come to us because we're a brand that they know," says Jones.
In terms of cost, Jones makes no bones about it. "We are more expensive. If you want cheap output, you can go to online companies like QuickParts. They sell the commodity of 3D printing, and it works for a lot of people. But, it's a different model if you want to talk about your part, see it and have a relationship with the printer. Our rent and overhead are not the same as someone in a warehouse somewhere."
Braintree Printing is more focused on the traditional 3D prototyping market, which doesn't require an investment in in-house design capabilities.
Owned by Jim Corliss, Jerry Hogan and Jose Tafur, the Braintree, MA-based operation specializes in high-end, four- and five-color offset printing and digital printing. It claims to be the first printer in New England to embrace 3D printing. Braintree selected a Stratasys Dimension 1200es, which is a more robust production device that prints in multiple colors and resolutions depending on desired build speed. The machine can print in fine resolution or offer faster printing, with layer thicknesses of 0.25mm (0.010˝) or 0.33mm (0.013˝). Files are output by the shop's production staff.
Corliss feels this 3D printing device really differentiates his company from potential competitors since the barrier to entry is higher. The Dimension 1200es costs more than $30,000 (compared to a hobbyist version for $2,000 or less). It also has a larger build area at 10x10x12˝. "The most common hobbyist model, the Makerbot, has a 125 cubic inch build area," Corliss says. "So my machine is 10 times bigger. That's a big deal. If you're building a small part—say 2x3 cubic inches—I can build 60 to 80 of them at one time."
There are limits to what you can do [with 3D prototyping] because there are service providers that are already doing it, according to Corliss. "They are well-entrenched, and they have multiple machines. But this technology is evolving quickly. With a little creative thinking, there are some real possibilities and potential for our industry to create new markets. But, the traditional market is already being met. So, it will take creative thinking."
One of the challenges, Corliss notes, is 3D design. Not every print shop can hire a 3D designer, and not every client will have a printable 3D file. Unless you are an output-only shop, 3D design capability is a must, but it increases overhead. (When Braintree created a customized yo-yo for an in-house event, it outsourced the job using oDesk to a designer in the Philippines.)
For this reason, Corliss believes, the hobbyist and novelty market isn't the future for commercial printers. "There is a limit to what you can do in that marketplace and limits to what those customers are willing to pay," he says.
When asked about using the device to move into markets like advertising specialties, Corliss raises the issue of speed. "[Even at the lower resolutions,] the technology by its nature is slow," he says. "Think of a poster printer, where the print head goes back and forth over a two-by-three-foot substrate. This is similar. The head goes back and forth many, many times. If the build resolution is .01 inch, the head has to go back and forth 100 times. If it's six inches high, that's 600 times."
For printers, Corliss believes that the future is in applications many have not even thought about yet—like printed circuitry, medical applications or prosthetics. "Something in which the value is in the uniqueness of the part—parts that have a unique use, such as for one patient and one patient only," he muses. "That is a less price-sensitive market."
Although Corliss is still investigating potential markets, he is thrilled with his purchase of a 3D printer. "I just fell in love with the technology," he says. "We've always invested in the latest and greatest, and this technology is not daunting. We were printing within an hour or two from the time it was installed. We have the infrastructure. Our people are used to dealing with digital files. We've just added another printer."
Like Hudson Printing and The UPS Store, Braintree Printing keeps its 3D printer in its lobby. "We have a steady stream of people looking at it," concludes Corliss, "but I'm not sure the process is something that they actually stay to watch. Because it's so slow, the build itself is not particularly interesting. It's like watching paint dry."
Other 3D Installations
Also like watching paint dry, is watching the number of actual 3D printer installations occurring in the printing industry. Still, it is happening.
While still closed-lipped about its plans, for example, Sandy Direct is also reported to be using 3D printers. The company is experimenting and outputting customer files upon request, but not doing in-house design.
Staples has launched a consumer-oriented 3D printing service. Currently available only in the Netherlands, its MyEasy3D service allows designers to upload and print their designs, as well as create their own "stores" full of printable designs. 3D creations can be purchased by the public. Staples uses full-color Iris printers from Mcor Technologies. Unlike the plastics-based printers, the Iris printers create 3D objects with layers of paper and a water-based adhesive. The advantage is bright colors and lower cost, but these objects are not as hardy as their plastic-based counterparts. According to Staples, it takes around eight to 14 business days to finish an order, and the models are delivered via parcel service.
While not a printer, Unisource's Prototyping Division has also been using an Mcor 3D printer for some time. Its function is tangential to that of the printing industry and one that perhaps commercial printers can draw on for ideas—using its 3D printer for creating package prototypes that remove weight, improve strength and test functionality.
Where will 3D printing technology lead and what business models will printers develop? Nobody knows. But, one thing is for sure. It's going to be a lot of fun to watch. PI