The latest in 3D printing: As technology continues to advance and, in some cases, become more affordable, the number of potential users is growing. Printers are finding it an area with abundant potential, if they are willing to embrace a very different business model.
“There is always something new happening in 3D printing,” said Kristen Turner, U.S. marketing director for Sculpteo in San Francisco, “from industry-specific applications to developments in IP issues to consumer marketplaces expanding to offer 3D printing.”
“2D Printers certainly have a keen interest in 3D printing,” reported Melissa Ragsdale, president of 3D Printer Solutions, NovaCopy. “I have spoken at a number of conferences in the last 18 months where 2D Printers want to learn about the technology, the opportunities available to them and how to get started.”
“In the past four months we’ve announced almost 20 new products,” added Buddy Byrum, VP of product and channel management in the Personal and Professional 3D Printers division of 3D Systems. “All in all, it’s a very exciting time.”
3D printing, of course, is an umbrella term that includes several different technologies. Nearly every material available for 3D printing requires a different printer which runs on a different technology. The types of products being printed range from architectural models and hardware components to prototypes, custom smartphone cases, figurines and more.
Both digital and offset printing services are investigating 3D printing, but shipping companies have entered the space first. UPS offers 3D printing services at a few of its franchises; in France, Sculpteo provides 3D printing through La Poste, the national postal service. It was recently reported that HP will announce a 3D printing service in June.
Different Business Model
While consumer 3D printers have become very affordable, professional grade printers are still a considerable investment. There is also a lot of other equipment, materials, and labor that are necessary to offer a professional quality 3D printing such as cleaning stations, dye baths, tumblers to smooth the surface, etc.
The first challenge for printers is to understand all the different types of 3D printing and what is required in terms of equipment, material, labor, and environment to offer each type, explained Turner. For some, a change in their basic business model may be required.
“First of all, it would be important to understand that the current customer base could not necessarily start using 3D printing right away,” Turner pointed out. “Your customers know how to format their files for paper print production using tools like InDesign and Quark or 2D graphic software like Photoshop or Illustrator. 3D printing requires 3D files created in 3D software. So you would need to support a range of 3D software like Maya, ZBrush, SolidWorks, or SketchUp and find customers that know how to use these tools.”
The second change would probably be the physical environment. Digital printers have their equipment in the open, and customers can usually get their printing done the same day. A professional 3D printing service would be more akin to offset printing, Turner said, “in the sense that there would be a production site with industrial equipment and longer lead times than digital paper printing.”
One of the biggest challenges, Byrum said, is the design paradigm shift that comes along with 3D printing. “Designers no longer have to worry about leaving room for tooling, creating a lot of fastening points or designing seams for interlocking elements. 3D printing is capable of creating objects without the manufacturing restrictions that designs typically have to face. So the big challenge is rethinking how design process works to take advantage of the limitless possibility and complexity of 3D printing.”
Byrum expects 3D printing to explode in both the industrial and consumer markets. “It’s already being used in ways that people don’t even realize: shoe design, medical implants, jewelry, dentistry, toys, aerospace, automotive," he said. “We’re going to go even further with metal 3D printing and improve the robustness of 3D printing for end-use parts.” The global 3D printing materials market is projected to reach $868 million by 2018, according to research firm MarketsandMarkets.
It is difficult to say exactly how the technology will be used. “It really is a vast blank canvas and a new capability that people will utilize in ways we could have never imagined," Byrum continued. "Healthcare 3D printing is going to get even bigger as materials improve; we may even be able to print end-use joint implants or medical devices in the coming years. End-use parts for airplanes and automobiles will be big as well. Personalized, localized consumer goods will also become a big market, as 3D printing allows local craftsmen and women to customize and manufacture like never before.”
“The great news about moving from 2D printing into 3D printing is that the business model is similar,” said Ragsdale. “If you run production-grade printers today with a specialist in charge, then you already have the people and technical savvy to pick up 3D printing and be successful with it. A 2D printer need only locate a reputable 3D printer dealer in their area and set up a partnership to exchange knowledge, receive good support and launch the revenue stream.”
In February, Artec Group unveiled a new professional service for business owners. Its Shapify.Pro kit encourages small businesses and entrepreneurs to build a business around Artec’s Shapify.Me technology, which uses a Microsoft Kinect sensor to scan customers in 3D and create 1:20, 1:15, or 1:12 scale figurines of them. Shapify.Pro partners get their full investment—$999—back in printing credits, plus special rates for printing. The technology is similar to the D-Tech Me product being used in Disney theme parks to create customized, 7-inch figurines that sell for $99.95.
Like the original Shapify.Me, the 3D selfie kit for individual use, a Shapify.Pro kit uses a Microsoft Kinect sensor array to scan customers in 3D. The scans are then uploaded to the Shapify website, and figurines are delivered to the business or customer within five days. The benefits of Shapify.Pro for small businesses include a $999 printing credit—matching the initial investment of $999 for the Shapify.Pro kit—and special rates that will allow 3D selfie businesses to become profitable quickly. Shapify.Pro also expands users’ options with two new larger sizes in addition to the 1:20 scale figures: 1:15 and 1:12 models. A standard Shapify.Me kit lets individual users purchase 1:20 scale models of themselves and their friends and family members for $79. But for $999, a Shapify.Pro account gives partners access to special Pro partner rates of $40 per 1:20 (small size) printed figurine, $80 per 1:15 (medium) figure, and $140 for each 1:12 (large) printed model. At the suggested retail prices of $79 for one small, $129 for one medium figurine and $199 for one large figure, Artec Group estimates business owners can make almost $5,000 per month by selling just two small and three medium figures every work day, and one large every other work day. Shapify figurines are 3D printed in monochrome or color plastic. All Shapify.Pro kits include an account at Shapify.pro, a Shapify-branded backpack and jacket, a scanning pad so customers will know exactly where to stand when being scanned, and further discounts for 3D printing figurines at Shapify partner print shops.