Proponents say 3D printing – where machines can construct solid objects by building them up, a layer at a time, in plastic, metal or ceramics – will affect every industry.
Manufacturing, warehousing, medicine, retail, transport and logistics, architecture and construction are just some. The question the printing industry is asking is whether there is a place for commercial printers as trail-blazers and forces for disruption.
3D printing now is reminiscent of the early days of wide format digital printing, except 3D printing is moving faster. Using computer aided design (CAD) software, different sectors are taking it up, and the pace of development is staggering.
Analyst firm Gartner is predicting 3D printer shipments will grow by 100 percent every year until 2018. The increase will be driven by falling costs and enterprises integrating the devices into their manufacturing processes. And the developments are extraordinary. We are seeing everything from a 3D printed five-speed transmission for a Toyota 22RE engine to scientists using the technology of 3D printing to create everything from lifelike prosthetics to teeth and bones, making many medical practices faster and more personalised. In the US Berkeley University has just unveiled an innovative 3D printed building made from powdered cement.
Printing stores and stationary outlets are getting into it. In the US, office supply chain Staples, after two years of European trials, opened two experimental 3D printing service centres in New York and Los Angeles providing the design, scanning, and printing hardware and software for occasional use or to try out before purchasing. Staples offers assistance from 3D printing experts. Staples is the first major US retailer to offer consumer and hobbyist 3D printers, which it does online and in 150 of its 1,500 US stores. They range in price from $US1300 to $5000. Printing sizes range from 5.5 to 12 cubic inches. Staples is also selling 3D printers through its website. The printer come with built-in WiFi and more than two dozen 3D design templates.
Britian’s retail giant Tesco has predicted that 3D printing will become a regular part of the service of supermarkets in the near future. Tesco’s IT chief, Mike McNamara told the media: “I think over the next few years you will see 3D printing in shops, because for the missing hose from the vacuum printer, you can print them in the time that someone enters the store, does a bit of shopping and leaves the store. So I can definitely see that being part of the retail offering in the none-too-distant future.”
So where does that leave printers? Potentially, it is an area they can move into.
In Sydney, the Kwik Kopy Bondi Junction store has become the first franchise print shop in Australia to embrace 3D printing and that could be a sign of what’s ahead.
Franchise owner Emmanuel Constantinou believes the printing industry is perfectly suited for 3D.
“I do believe that 3D printing has a particular market for itself, and depending on what printers are doing these days about embracing technology that will complement print into the future, there is no doubt that 3D printing is diversifying into its own platform rapidly sideways and really stretching the wings out,’’ says Constantinou. He says Kwik Kopy is backing him fully and acknowledges if it is successful, it could be rolled out in other Kwik Kopy outlets. He says clients are coming from architecture, medical and promotional areas.
“They come to us because number one we launched into the market place, and number two I go out there selling my service,’’ he says. “We are creating opportunities to utilise it.”
He says he is not moving away from printing and design, All he is doing is offering an extra service, pretty much in the way corner shops expanded and became florists, coffee houses and sandwich bars. He says 3D printing was a better way of doing it than just offering web services.
“The main core of my business is print and design,’’ he says. “I want to embrace new technology and I have always been one to be an early adopter of new technology. I want to go down this road rather than duplicating other stores offering the building of web sites, where people can instead do it all themselves with WordPress.
“What I wanted to do was introduce a new market where people can start looking at where the application of 3D printing could best fit their business and how could they utilise this technology to make their businesses look better.”
“From my perspective I have a specific reason as to why I put this machine in. It is that at the end of the day, I am working on a project at the moment that will really allow 3D printing to be functional to residential and also businesses in my area.”
He would not elaborate on what this project was. It is very much a case of watch this space.
But other printers are unenthused.
OnePoint chief executive Kerim el Gabaili says 3D printing is irrelevant for printers.
“To me it is an engineering product,’’ el Gabaili says. “If I want to do a prototype then it is perfect but we firmly believe we are in the marketing and communication industry. I do not see where 3D printing fits in
“It is not on our radar at this point, it is a distraction. The only thing we have in common with 3D printing is the word printing.”
“At this point for where we are it’s a distraction. It’s an interesting piece of technology better suited to an engineer than to us.”
Part of the problem, he says, is that 3D printing takes too long. It can take 20-30 hours to produce a figurine, “We are not a very patient culture anymore” he says. “It needs time to become well absorbed and complement people’s needs.”
But PIAA chief executive Bill Healey says there is a link with the printing industry. Both, he says, are part of the manufacturing process. Printers with their skills have a head start.
“I would argue just by the title that they have got a head start on other businesses and I would argue most people are not going to run out and buy a 3D printer”, Healey says.
“From the skills point of view we would argue that the design on a computer screen is a skill set that has correlation to the work that is being done now in terms of file set up and pre-press.
“In terms of machine maintenance we would argue there are elements of traditional printing to that. A lot of this stuff now is the development of management of cartridges, management of the rollers the inkjets go across so there is some alignment from those two areas plus the design and the file management it certainly aligns with traditional printing.”
“3D printing can be described as additive manufacture where you built something from the base up, using inkjet technology.’’
“There are a lot of people are questioning whether it will be used for large scale mass production. However, if you look at where consumerisation is going in the post-industrial era, there is the emergence of the concept of mass customisation where increasingly the Hendy Ford model of you can have any car you want as long as its black is going out the window. “
He says 3D printing is now a topic of discussion for the PIAA’s skills council.
“We really need to look at where it’s at, where it might go and what sort of skills and how do those skills marry up to our existing skills, where are the gaps and how do we address them,” he says.
He says he can see print shops like Snap and Kwik Kopy and stationery outlets like Officeworks getting into it.
“I see it as another product that they will offer as a multichannel customer service provider. I don’t necessarily see them becoming 3D outlets but I see it as another service that they offer’’ he says.
But that, in itself, meant that the printing industry needed to learn new skills.
“They are already looking for other ways to generate revenues which complement their existing skill sets,’’ he said. “But there is a marketing issue here about how they go and sell to people when they have a problem how do they drag them into the store to get that piece fixed by the 3D printer
“People are time poor. If they can get the thing done quickly, people will pay a premium.
“It’s not necessarily the technical skills, it’s the sales and marketing and strategic planning skills that they will need. You have to understand who your customer is and respond to their needs.”
Jeff Hancock, the CEO of DGS 3D, says the 3D printing skills are a serious issue for printers. Simply put, there are not enough experts out there.
“It is going to be hard for them to get into because they have to learn about the 3D software side of it and it’s a very small field of expertise where people know what they’re doing,’’ Hancock says.
“Anyone can go buy a $2000 printer and download the files and they can do their own little 3D things with Xbox and scanners.
“But to get a good quality image you really need to know your software and things like that.”
“You do need people with a lot of skills in four or five different softwares. There’s probably about three or four people I have met over the last couple of years that actually know it,”
He says this, together with the time spent producing a 3D item, leaves printers with a completely different business model.
He said printers wanting to get into 3D printing need to ‘have a long hard think about it because you will need someone to do it’.
“The printer at the end is just a dumb machine, the information getting to that machine is what you need to know,’’ he says.
He said the area that had taken off for his business was in GIS (Geographic Information System) mapping.
He could see outlets like Kwik Kopy, Snap and Officeworks getting into it but it would be limited.
“They will be taking it up but they will not be doing it themselves,’’ he said. “They will be doing the scanning side and then passing it on to a company with the machine and the ability to do it.
“That is because places like Kwik Kopy and Office Works want an out of the box solution”
He said it would still take a few years to take off in the printing industry.
“It will come into the print production side of it but you are looking at another three or four years at least and then it will be a completely different market.”
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