Potential clients visit the Hobs 3D Studio in London during an open house.
By Ed Avis
What do you call an FM that includes a 3D printer and conventional printing equipment? Forget the boring “print room.” This new kind of FM, at least for clients of Hobs Reprographics in the UK, is a “creative room.”
“In the old days we used to sell a print room, now we’re selling a creative room,” says Kieran O’Brien, Hobs’ CEO. “We’re just being creative in the use of various technologies to support our clients in the visualization of scenes or the presentation of new ideas.”
Being creative is how Hobs -- which has 29 locations, including two devoted to 3D printing and other advanced technologies – has thrived when many other reprographics firms were content to merely survive.
“I’ve been through five recessions and I take the view a business never comes out the end of a recession the same as it was when it went into the recession,” says O’Brien, who founded Hobs in 1969. “You have to work with your clients to make sure you are still relevant after the change takes place. We research the markets continually to make sure we are up to date and relevant for our clients. During the recession our clients were changing. We acknowledged that and we had to change ourselves.”
The biggest change the firm recently accomplished was the creation of Hobs Studio. Hobs Studio – there is one in London and another in Manchester – is devoted to cutting edge technology that helps AEC clients visualize, present, and build projects.
3D printing is just one technology available at Hobs Studio. Other services include laser 3D scanning of existing buildings; various visualization services such as CGI rendering; and BIM support to turn the design into reality.
All of this technology is housed in modern offices that a blueprinter of old would not feel at home in – white walls, sleek silver accents, high-tech design all the way.
The idea for Hobs Studio emerged over the past five years as O’Brien and his colleagues communicated with clients and learned what they needed. “We found that our clients were very aware of the 3D market,” he says. “We weren’t quite as close to the technology as they were. We spent two to three years learning about BIM and the encouragement our clients were receiving from their clients about BIM, and that took us neatly into 3D printing, scanning, and graphics.”
Hobs’ move into 3D printing was not a matter of simply buying a few 3D printers and adding a line to the services brochure – it represented an evolution of the business.
“We recognized the fact that the reprographics industry is no longer a click-based business,” O’Brien says. “Today we see it as more of a consultative business, and our involvement with 3D printing, graphics, and scanning is a major part of our recognition that things will not be the same.”
AEC Still Dominates
The move to 3D printing and other high technologies has not coincided with a move away from the traditional AEC market. O’Brien says the primary client base for Hobs Studio is the same base he has served for five decades.
“I would say right now quite a small percentage is beyond AEC,” he says. “Our whole aim with 3D printing has been to generate a need and satisfy the existing the need within our AEC client base. However we are looking outside that base to create a secondary market for this equipment.”
The secondary markets that Hobs has found include companies in medical design, fashion, aeronautics, packaging, and Formula One racing. Formula One race car manufacturers have asked Hobs to create prototype fuel system and braking parts, for example.
Hobs also sells 3D equipment, primarily high-end machines. The company is the second largest seller in Europe for 3D Systems, O’Brien says. Often the sale of equipment includes maintenance and supplies, and sometimes further to the complete FM idea of a “creative room.”
Unlike many other reprographics businesses that offer 3D printing services, O’Brien reports that Hobs’ 3D business is successful. “It’s very profitable. We’re very happy.”
O’Brien is not content with two Hobs Studios – plans are underway for new locations in Glasgow and Bristol. “The most important thing I think is we have committed ourselves, unlike most reprographers, to getting into firmly into the 3D marketplace,” he says.
And the firm is considering acquisitions of one or two existing companies in the UK, and would consider expanding in the United States. “I would love to have an opportunity to come to the States,” he says. “I would encourage it if somebody felt they wanted to work with us.”
Regardless of how much Hobs grows, the focus on staying one step ahead will continue.
“When you talk to your clients and ask them, ‘What’s on your wish list of technology?’ and they give you some responses that are unexpected, we won’t stand in their way,” O’Brien says. “So we’re approaching the market from a different angle. We’re becoming less of a traditional reprographer and continuing to really prove our relevance.”