The BigRep One 3D Printer debuted at the New York 3D PrintShow.
3-D Printing for Reprographics? Observations from the New York Show
Editor’s Note: Joel Salus, former IRgA managing director and long-time member of the reprographics community, attended the 3D PrintShow in New York City Feb 7-9. IRgA Today asked him to evaluate the 3D situation from a reprographics perspective. Here is a Q&A based on his experience at the show.
IRgA Today: So Joel, briefly describe the highlights of the show.
Joel Salus: One of my primary reasons for attending the show was to see how the technology has evolved, and I saw a wide range of equipment priced from as low as $200 (for a micro 3D printer from M3D - build area 109 x 113 x 116 millimeters) to as high as $1.64 million (for a giant, industrial 3D printer from VoxelJet VX4000 - build area 4 x 2 x 1 meters). Quite a number of different brands and models of printers were priced in the $1,000 to $2,000 range. One printer, in particular, might be of interest to reprographers because of its size and build area – this show was the “world premier” of this particular printer – BigRep One – manufactured in Germany – build area 1147 x 1000 x 1188 millimeters (or, roughly, 3.76 x 3.28 x 3.89 feet). Built like a tank. Suggested Retail Price: $39,000 (excluding sales tax and shipping).
IRgA: What about supplies?
Joel: There were only a couple of companies at the show who manufacture materials (primarily plastic filament materials) used in 3D printers. Printing materials vary, there are not just one or two types. For example, the BigRep One brochure lists these materials: PLA, ABS, PVA, HDPE, PC, Nylon, TPE, Laywood, Laybrick. (Disclaimer; I have no idea what most of these are, so, if you’re interested in finding out what they are, look ‘em up!)
IRgA: So in your observation, can a reprographics shop make money with a 3D printer?
Joel: Reprographers have long been very strong print-for-pay businesses. Essentially, we are a “time sharing” business; a typical reprographer may serve hundreds of customers (some have thousands of customers) who order work periodically, monthly, weekly and daily. We are well experienced at receiving files, preparing files to print, and printing, and, of course, we’ve long handled distribution. But, since 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.
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.
When the first small-format copier came to market, very few general businesses acquired them, so it was “a natural” for a reprographics shop to acquire one and offer copy-for-pay services. But with 3D printing, there are already lots of different low-end (and low-priced) 3D printing machines on the market and, most assuredly, more will be coming, so it’s not out of the question that small businesses and consumers will acquire their own 3D printers.
Reprographers who are obsessed with finding new revenue streams might seriously consider acquiring and offering 3D print-for-pay services. And, for those who do take that route, my personal suggestion would be that you not just offer print-for-pay services, but also sell and service 3D printing equipment (i.e., become a distributor and offer “local” parts and repair services), possibly offer 3D design and 3D print training, 3D print materials, and consider offering a virtual trading marketplace like what Shapeways is offering.
IRgA: Tell us about Shapeways.
Joel: Shapeways is one of many 3D printing service bureaus. Shapeways has created a virtual marketplace for 3D printed objects. Their slogan is “make, buy and sell your 3D printed products.” So, if you are a designer who can design 3D objects, Shapeways will print them for you, or, if you want to make your designs available to others, Shapeways will host your design and others can order “prints” of it. Shapeways has an interesting, and, to me, a very relevant business model for the print-for-pay space. It’s my understanding that Shapeways has twelve 3D printing devices, different “types” of 3D printers.
IRgA: Well, since places like Shapeways already exist, can a reprographics shop compete?
Joel: In my mind, there's nothing unique or special about Shapeways; it's just that Shapeways is an early entrant, apparently doing well in the space it created. But, that space will eventually be a very crowded space. If reprographers wanted to compete with Shapeways, that's certainly possible. Groups such as ReproMax and RSA could enter that market as a "network" of providers. But, we are, from a "who is the customer" perspective, talking about a business - 3D print-for-pay - that is very, very different from reprographics.
IRgA: Creating one-off items is one idea, but what about the idea of a reprographics shop becoming a mini-manufacturer using 3D printers?
Joel: I was reading the list of speakers at an upcoming engineering conference (“COFES”), and I found this one: David Prawel (of Longview Advisors) will be giving a presentation titled, “The Impact of the Additive Manufacturing Explosion.” “The business of discrete product manufacturing is likely to have been dramatically transformed by the year 2020, much of it a result of the explosion of Additive Manufacturing (AM). What transformations are we likely to see? Will AM change the economics for small-shop manufacturing? Will AM be able to play a serious role in global supply chains? What decisions should be made today to thrive in this new landscape? How will product distribution change in the next few years? Should UPS and FedEx be concerned, or will they be leading the change?”
Doesn’t this seem to imply that, at some point in the future, instead of a manufacturer or designer shipping products (part or objects), they, instead, will distribute the 3D print-file to a “local” point, where the part or object will be 3D printed on a “local” printer? Reprographers, that sounds familiar – rather than “print, then distribute,” “distribute, then print.”
So it seems that it would not be all that difficult to set oneself up as a mini-manufacturer. The difficult part will be figuring out who to sell your services to, how to reach them, how to price your services, and developing enough volume to make the operation profitable. Since our traditional customer base doesn't, I think, generate sufficient demand, we are going to have to reach out to customers we haven't traditionally served, and we will be producing "objects" that have nothing, at all, to do with "documents." Does that make any sense for players in our industry?
IRgA: You mentioned distribution. Which companies did you see at the show who are looking for distribution?
Joel: Most of the companies (3D printing equipment manufacturers) I met at the show are looking for "big box" retailers (such as Best Buy) to be retail distributors. They spoke about the possibility of selling through different channels (and, certainly, the reprographics industry is a unique channel). I think repro shops would be a worthwhile channel for 3D equipment manufacturers, but I don't think that reprographers would, or should, be all that interested in the low-end (low-priced) 3D printers. Low-end 3D printers will be sold on price, and, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for reprographers to compete with "Best Buys" type retailers. And, most prospective customers will be consumers, not businesses. On the other hand, reprographers who sell reprographics equipment have long been outstanding when it comes to servicing equipment and with training customers how to operate equipment, so I don’t think it will be all that difficult for reprographers, those who decide to sell and service 3D printing equipment, to operate 3D printing equipment dealerships.
IRgA: Finally, what if a repro shop owner (or anyone) would rather invest in 3D printing than actually do the printing? Did you see any good investment opportunities at the show?
Joel: At my age (advanced age, and I'm now 67), I did not find an investment opportunity that I would consider worthy of my money or my time. But, I might have had a different opinion if this show had all of the major players (equipment manufacturers) in attendance, and, if all of the exhibitors (all of the equipment manufacturers) had had samples made out of all of the different "build" materials their printers can use. Most of the printers at the show print with (the "build" material used is) plastic filament. Good for making trinkets and objects to show what 3D is capable of doing, but, absent a variety of materials, not good enough of a "big picture."
On the other hand, if I were a young guy, I'd likely consider opening a business that sells a) 3D printing equipment, and b) equipment service, and c) materials, and d) 3D design software, and e) 3D design training, and f) 3D print training, and g) print-for-pay services, and the business would also offer a virtual 3D products marketplace, and a physical (in-store) 3D art gallery. Call it "3D World."
For additional reference: www.3dprintshow.com