What, If Anything, Does 3D Printing Mean for PSPs?

As printing in a third dimension becomes more cost effective, it also has attracted much more attention in recent months as a tool to create gadgets, toys, and miniature works of art. So-called 3D printing is a type of additive manufacturing that builds three-dimensional objects through a layering process. Unlike printing a document the traditional way of ink on paper, most 3D printers apply thin layers of molten plastic on a build tray to produce accurate and functional models. As UK journalist Allister Heath succinctly described last month in an article for The Telegraph, “Remarkably, 3D printing allows actual objects to be designed and created (or “printed”) surprisingly quickly with a computer connected to a printer-like device, using special material (often plastic, but increasingly almost anything) as “ink” and “paper.”

3D printing has taken the manufacturing industry by storm, reproducing machine parts and human parts, including prosthetics such as “bionic” ears that Princeton researchers say may hear better than the real organs. There even is an invisibility cloak akin to the Harry Potter movies’ sci-fi special effects. Most controversially, perhaps, 3D-printed guns have been in the news a lot lately.

“I’d suggest the 3D printing market today is a lot like the traditional printing market of the ’80s and early ’90s, when printers were too costly for most consumers and most would go to Kinkos to print their projects, portfolios, or resumes,” Michael Wolf wrote in a March Forbes article. “However, unlike then, widespread adoption of the Internet means that accessing emerging and expensive technology no longer means a trip to the corner Kinkos. Instead, today anyone wanting access to 3D printing services can get it from companies like Shapeways, Sculpteo, or Materialise, each of which can put the type of high-end 3D printing technology into the hands of creative types required to make anything from toys and puzzles to jewelry and clothing.”

So what does 3D prototyping have to do with conventional print as we’ve known it? Not much, according to Neil Hopkinson, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Sheffield in England who heads up its Centre for Advanced Additive Manufacturing (AdAM). Hopkinson, a pioneer of the 3D technology as a manufacturing process, published the first work proposing the use of “3D printing” for series manufacture; he also was the lead editor on the world’s first book into the subject.

“I do not know the 2D Printing world intimately,” admitted Professor Hopkinson, “but I suspect that their customer base is very different from the current and future customers for 3D printing/additive manufacturing. Therefore, I do not see obvious 3D printing opportunities for 2D printing companies. I see more opportunities for product manufacturing companies that currently supply parts made by injection moulding and machining.”

Some progressive print visionaries disagree, including Jim Corliss, co-owner of trade specialist Braintree Printing in Braintree, MA, near Boston. In late February, his 30-year-old firm became the first printer in the New England area to embrace 3D technology with the purchase of a Dimension 1200es professional 3D printer manufactured by Stratasys, Inc.

Braintree Printing is one of the top digital printing and offset printing companies in the Northeast—a US top 100 performer in 2012, according to Quick Printing magazine. With its new, high-performance Dimension device, in just minutes customer digital files become physical 3D objects. Prototypes, customized parts, and architectural and medical models can be easily produced by the 3D printer, which works in conjunction with a 3D CAD file imported into Catalyst EX Software. The software slices and orients 3D models and plots a precise deposition path for the 3D printer to follow.

Why Integrate 3D?

Why would a $6.5-million, high-end offset and digital printer make the leap and invest some $50,000 in an entry-level, pro 3D print device? (The consumer/hobbyist Cube 3D model that retailer Staples began selling in May is priced at approximately $1,300.) After all, Corliss agreed with Hopkinson’s keen observations about 3D print’s distinctly different customer base. “It’s true. The buyers are different,” he said. “3D prototyping is bought by design engineers in manufacturing environments.”

Yet Corliss sees front-end synergies as well. For him, it’s all about the files. “Most printing companies are very comfortable dealing with files,” he pointed out. “The infrastructure is in place—from servers to FTP sites—so it’s a natural progression. We have the file and digital expertise.”

Phil Magenheim, director of business development and strategic planning at 3D service provider Direct Dimensions, Inc. (DDI), concurred that “data prep is the key.” The Maryland-based firm specializes in transforming real-world data into 3D formats for automotive, architectural, structural engineering, and even museum customers. Interestingly, DDI outsources the printing to service bureaus. In an April joint venture, DDI teamed up with software developer 3DMTP (3D Model to Print) and its file-fixing service, which employs CAD (computer-aided design) technology. Much like preflight software used in traditional, 2D prepress environments, the product readies files for 3D output, making them printable. “Most of the problems involve resolving scaling issues,” Magenheim noted.

Back at Braintree Printing, to get up to speed staff members have completed 30 to 40 projects as part of their training. In its 17,000-square-foot plant, customer service representative Robin Clark is among those testing the new 3D printer. Clark has created an assortment of products, from an entire chess set to screws, chains, gears, wheels, a human heart reproduction, and a toy dragon. “It’s amazing what this printer can do,” she said. The Dimension 3D printer can produce models as large as 10x10x12 inches in multiple colors.

Braintree has completed eight paying jobs for four customers to date, reported Corliss, mostly prototype parts. “We’re testing the waters,” he admitted. “It’s similar to incorporating mailing services or PURLs or QR codes into your [printing] business … but 3D printers are a game changer in new product development. Our customers will be able to perfect their products before they go to manufacturing—all at the touch of a button.” At a recent trade-only open house, Braintree showed off the Dimension 3D device, which raised eyebrows, Corliss said. “There was a lot of curiosity among our print customers from New England and New York state.”

3D printing technology ultimately could become an adjunct profit center for Braintree Printing, he added, following the service bureau model. But to get there, Corliss and his partners will have to do more than dabble: A serious investment in 3D service offerings could exceed $800,000, he said. They also need to get serious about sales and marketing. Other than putting up a billboard on the highway and adding an email tag line touting “We do 3D printing,” Corliss conceded, they haven’t yet done full-blown marketing push. “We are beginning to set up a separate mailing list,” he reported.

Before diving into 3D print services, there is another aspect to consider. The vertical markets for 3D printing can be quite different, explained DDI’s Magenheim. “Different applications require different equipment and different materials,” he said, adding that the 3D manufacturing of jewelry is quite different from, say, car parts. So it would be wise for 3D print providers to focus on similar verticals. For Braintree one vertical niche may be medical manufacturers, Corliss said after returning from a trade show with a notebook full of leads.

Dimensional Potential

Expect to see 3D printing market sales reach more than $8 billion in the next eight years, up dramatically from $777 million in 2012, according to an April report from Lux Research. The automotive, aerospace, and medical industries will comprise market share of nearly 85 percent. On a smaller scale, Peter Weijmarshausen, CEO of the Dutch 3D start-up firm Shapeways, told Forbes, “Maybe not this year but next year [in 2014], I would hope that we will have the first ‘Shapeways millionaire’ that sold more than a million dollars worth of merchandise.”

US President Barack Obama is among the 3D print believers. During his most recent State of the Union address, the President said that 3D printing “revolutionizes the way we make everything.” Obama believes it will be a boon to designers, engineers, medical professionals, and manufacturers, saving them time and money on product development via rapid prototyping—sans the need for custom-made tools. In addition to helping to strengthen America’s struggling manufacturing industry, 3D print also can play a role in bolstering its military, said the White House, which now is throwing money the at additive manufacturing process.

Several different applications of the technology have been identified by the President as part of a $200 million, federally funded competition to create three manufacturing institutes across five federal agencies: Defense, Energy, Commerce, NASA, and the National Science Foundation. The competition is part of a broader $1 billion effort by the Obama Administration to reinvest in American manufacturing “after shedding jobs for a decade,” the White House press secretary said in a statement. In related news, business website Grid Chicago has reported that Ford Motor Co. now makes extensive use of 3D printing in a Dearborn, MI factory to design and eventually manufacture certain car parts.

Forbes contributor Wolf concluded, “So while 3D printers may not be in millions of homes in the next few years, 3D printed creations from entrepreneurial makers and creators ... just might be enabled by a new class of online 3D printing service companies.” Could your firm be one of them? With the intense demand for print shops of all sizes to remain viable and competitive, 3D printing offers a unique opportunity to differentiate. At the very least, it’s something to think about and consider as 2013 reaches its halfway point.

4D Print Is Next

So-called four-dimensional print is a research initiative into programmable materials, such as self-folding proteins. Introduced by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in late February at the 2013 edition of the Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) conference, Skylar Tibbits, a lecturer in the MIT architecture department and founder of the research university’s new Self-Assembly lab, said his “4D print” projects are designed to respond to energy and change over time.

At TED, Tibbits showed off a collaboration with Stratasys and Autodesk to create strands made of multiple types of materials that, when dipped in water, fold themselves into pre-designed shapes. (MyPRINTResource.com/10892199)