3D printing has generated an enormous amount of interest among IRgA members as a potential new revenue source. The technology has great promise – some experts suggest it will totally reconfigure the world of manufacturing – and some savvy reprographics shop owners want in on the action.
But is the 3D printing industry is moving so rapidly and in so many directions that reprographics risks being left out of the gold rush?
The concept of 3D printing covers several technologies, all of which take digital data and create 3D objects. The technology began in the 1980s, when it was called “rapid prototyping.” Naturally, the technology has advanced dramatically in the decades since those early days, but the basic idea remains the same: a material in powder, liquid, or solid form is added one layer at a time to create an object.
Today the applications appear endless. Custom medical devices, prototype parts, and even food items can be “printed” in the machines. Without a doubt, 3D printing is a “disruptive technology.” The impact may be enormous: McKinsey & Company estimates that 3D printing will generate $200-$600 billion per year within the next decade.
(For a great history of the field and an overview of the technologies, visit The Free Beginner’s Guide to 3D Printing)
Impact on Reprographics
But is 3D printing right for a reprographics firm? If it were still called “rapid prototyping,” would reprographics firms even be thinking about it?
It can be argued that 3D printing is appropriate for reprographics firms. After all, it is a technology-driven business that bears some similarity to plotting – data goes in, products come out.
Where 3D printing seems to make the most sense for a reprographics firm is in the AEC field. Architects already build models, so making models from CAD files can be seen as an easy advancement. It takes a lot less time to create a digitally printed model of a skyscraper than to make a traditional cardstock model of one.
And many reprographics firms are getting into the field.
Among the most notable is NRI, the New York-based firm that is growing across the country. “Using our 3D solutions gives you more time to work on design innovation and reduces time spent on fabrication,” NRI notes on its website, which is heavy with photos of 3D-printed architectural models. “While our equipment and technology automates the process, it's our experts and technicians who bring the projects to life with their craftsmanship, technique and attention to detail.”
NRI offers 3D printing from six locations: Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington DC. To promote the service they offer tours of their 3D center to interested prospective clients, and free one-hour “lunch and learn” presentations about the technology. Learn more about NRI’s 3D services here: http://www.nrinet.com/3d-printing
Another major player in 3D printing among reprographics shops is Hobs Reprographics, headquartered in London. This company is so heavily into 3D that they opened a “3D studio” and last year they printed 3D models that were featured at an event at Buckingham Palace.
“The majority of models that we produce are architectural or construction as this is our main client base however we also do product design, bottles, jewelry, medical parts, boats, art educational models,” said Hobs CEO Kieran O’Brien in an IRgA Today interview about his firm’s 3D business. Read the whole interview here: http://www.irga.com/3d-printing-q-a-Hobs-Reprographics-Succeeds/
Other reprographics firms have been getting into the business. For example, check out the sites of these companies:
Factors Against the Trend
So clearly some reprographics firms are poised to profit from the growing 3D industry. But is long-term success in the cards?
The 3D industry has evolved into two distinct tracks, which can be summarized simply as the high end and the low end. The low end consists of consumer 3D printing, such as kids making science projects and hobbyists making little statues. This market is vast, and it is being sucked up by big-box office supply stores with 3D printing kiosks and super-convenient on-line 3D print services like Shapeways.
A reprographics shop trying to compete in low consumer end of 3D printing would be like a reprographics shop suddenly deciding to get into small format copies. You might sell a few here and there, but you’ll be racing with Office Depot for the lowest price.
The other track is where more possibilities may exist. High-end 3D printing is done on more sophisticated equipment and requires more talented operators, both of which mean OfficeMax is not a competitor. This is the realm of quality architectural models, and fortunately, this is the market reprographics firms already know.
Clearly, this is where NRI, Hobs, and other reprographics firms now in the 3D biz are hoping to succeed. But if a firm limits itself to AEC clients, will it have a big enough market?
“[S]ince our core customers are A/E/C firms, and since our core customers have limited needs (some have no need at all) for 3D printing services, that, to me, presents the major problem with reprographers investing in 3D printing technology,” Joel Salus wrote in a report for IRgA Today about the 3D PrintShow in New York in February. “I’m not saying that there isn’t space for reprographers to participate in the 3D print-for-pay space; what I’m saying is that if you invest in 3D printing equipment, but then limit your targets to your core customer base, you will have a very difficult time earning a return on your investment. And, if you do target customers outside of your core space, you’ll end up dealing with lots of different customers, who, individually, may have only a very occasional need for 3D printing.”
Read the entire report here: http://www.irga.com/3d-printing-for-repro%3F-observations-from-new-york-3d-printsh/
This means reprographics firms that want to become really big players need to look beyond AEC, and when they do that they bump up against other players. For example, two of the biggest equipment manufacturers in the 3D field, Stratasys and 3D Systems, have their own web-based service bureaus that compete for the best projects.
Solid Concepts, the service bureau operated by Stratasys, touts that it makes parts for aerospace firms, medical manufacturers, and firearms makers, among other high-end clients. And it lists 16 different technologies that it can tap into to create a customer’s project – far more than any reprographics firm will invest in. Read more here: http://www.solidconcepts.com/3d-printing/
Among the initiatives at 3D Systems is QuickParts Solutions, which uses a similarly wide range of technologies to make sophisticated on-demand parts in materials ranging from urethane to aluminum. Read more here: http://www.3dsystems.com/quickparts/production
Can a reprographics firm realistically compete in the non-AEC area with these types of businesses?
That is the challenge that awaits reprographics firms entering the 3D space. They need to forget the low-end market, because that’s already saturated by low-cost equipment and unsophisticated suppliers. And they face huge competition in the high-end market from companies that have a national footprint and years of head start.
On the other hand, the 3D printing market is alluring and getting bigger everyday. Can a reprographics shop owner resist?