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...
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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.
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.”