In the past few weeks, it’s been on Have I Got News For You, on Newsnight (where Paxman looked completely confused by the whole idea), on major TV news reports, most tech websites and in almost all the leading newspapers and magazines. Interest has been fuelled by its first dedicated UK show, held on 19-21 October. 3D print, it seems, has truly arrived.
Last year, PrintWeek predicted that the explosion of interest in 3D print would occur. Cast your mind back and you will remember that they explained how this ‘print’ technology that puts down layers of material to create 3D objects worked, and asked whether traditional commercial printers should take note. At the time, the answer was: ‘not yet’. A year on, the answer is: ‘perhaps’. Indeed, some are already doing it.
Business owners and consumers alike could be forgiven for still being a little confused as to what the evolution of 3D printing actually means for mass manufacture, and for the average person on the street. Certainly, the most exciting reports doing the rounds seem to be claims that in the future every home will have a 3D printer. Apparently, a consumer will be able, after downloading a file from the internet, to quickly print off a replacement broken cooker knob, even if production of the model was long ago discontinued.
But in fact, says Phil Reeves, managing director at additive manufacturing research consultancy Econolyst, this futuristic vision probably won’t become a reality for some time.
“To be honest, a lot of the home 3D printing technology at the moment isn’t capable of printing 95% of the products that you might want,” he says, explaining that by contrast industrial ‘prosumer’ 3D printers, costing around the £10,000 to £50,000 rather than £1,000 mark, offer much better productivity and quality.
This is, of course, good news for those businesses that can afford ‘prosumer’ machines. It means they can supply the consumer market. And, says Reeves, this is where the opportunity for printers exists – not the potential industrial market. He reports that large manufacturers will inevitably perform the process themselves.
“Aerospace, automotive and medical companies are doing significant amounts of research to validate the process. When they do [validate it], they will either bring it in-house or they will place a sub-contract order with an existing supplier in their sector. The supplier will then make the capital investment and become an additive part supplier,” he explains. “So I think growth for those supplying will be much more on the consumer side of things, with 3D print’s suitability for cost-effectively producing one-off, personalised items coming into its own.”
This has certainly been the experience of Dave Summers, 3D print manager at recent 3D adopter The Colour Company print franchise. “The first job we did was a small house that will eventually be part of a scale model for the guy’s children,” he says.
Summers’ 3D offering looks set to develop in the same vein as those companies slightly further down the line, such as Shoreditch-based 3D digitisation, design and 3D print house Digits2Widgets. The latter’s main client is MakieLab, a company allowing consumers to design their own personalised dolls online and charging a tasty £99 a pop.
According to Summers, novelty consumer trinkets won’t be the only business-generators: “We’ve also had two architecture students wanting to create models from which to make negative casts for glass casting,” he reports.
Callprint, which has been offering 3D print for seven years, confirms that there is strong demand in the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) market.
“Our client-base is heavily AEC orientated, so we’re making sketch or concept models that can be looked at and then used to create the next design,” says managed services director Paul D’Rozario. “Our method is generally much higher resolution, quicker and cheaper than what they were using before. If you put all that in the pot, that adds great value for these clients.”
Callprint’s example shows that getting in early with this new technology could be a shrewd move. The Bigger Printing Company director Sebastian Stanley certainly feels that the key to success is acting quickly to get ahead of the crowd – not least because the current issue of the process being rather slow will be rectified.
“We want to get in early because we think this is going to develop very, very quickly. People who want to understand the technology need to get in now,” he says. “I think the machines in three years’ time will be far quicker, but I don’t think you could wait until then to get involved and expect to hit the ground running. We intend to get a machine in next year some time, so we can do some R&D and really know what we’re doing by the time people are demanding this.”
Stanley, Summers and D’Rozario point out, though, that ensuring access to the right markets is central to the successful addition of 3D print to a business. For CallPrint and The Bigger Printing Company, this means being safe in the knowledge that they have existing loyal architecture and design customers interested in using this service. Meanwhile, The Colour Company feels its location will ensure healthy take-up, says Summers: “We’ve had a lot of interest in it, because we’re in Soho and quite a few people round here are doing 3D modelling for TV.”
“Also, we have it in the front of the shop, so we can show people how it’s done when they drop by,” he adds, saying that this is vital to selling such a new – and in fact still largely unheard-of – offering.
But even if a printer has either a set-up where interested parties can drop in and find out more, or the right existing client-base to take 3D proposals to the right markets, they will still need to exercise caution.
Digits2Widgets design director Jonathan Rowley warns that 3D print shouldn’t be treated as a casual add-on to an existing business.
“Online videos of 3D printing can be quite misleading in that they demonstrate three stages; there’s the designing, the printing, then there’s the ‘voilà moment’,” he says. “Now, between the printing and the ‘voilà’ on all professional quality printers, there is a processing stage – and that involves a lot of cleaning, which is fairly straightforward but something that needs doing by a human being. It’s quite labour-intensive and takes up a lot of room. So this isn’t the sort of installation you can just have in the corner somewhere.”
And most challenging for those with no background in 3D printing or design will be preparing files for print. “The data processing is hugely different to what a printer would normally be dealing with,” explains D’Rozario. “You have got very complex files, you need a skilled and experienced team prepping and optimising data. You require a completely different skill-set.”
Just hoping to pick up the necessary 3D skills as you go along may be a bit of a naïve approach, then. What will be needed instead, say those already experienced in the field, is a significant commitment to this offering, which sees the printer investing in employees with 3D CAD design experience.
“Learning a 3D program properly takes years; it’s not something you can just pick up straight away,” says 3D Print UK founder Nick Allen. “I think if there was a Venn diagram of all the skills and all the processes 2D and 3D printing involved, the only thing in the middle would be the word ‘print,’” he adds.
In light of these manufacturing challenges, it is possible that 3D print may be embraced by the print industry most often in the form of a service outsourced. This is certainly how small digital print house and print management company Rubicon intends to capitalise on the technology.
“It is useful when we are sat in front of our clients to be able to drop it in, because they then perceive us in a different way, it builds our relationship with them,” says business development director Toby Whiteley.
Despite the challenges involved, it seems there are still plenty who are intending to build even stronger relationships with their clients by producing 3D printed products, and to offer expert advice on the process. While not all print businesses will have the location, client-base or indeed the inclination to get into 3D print (with still more constrained by not having the cashflow to invest in the machinery and expertise), many feel that some printing business models lend themselves very nicely to such an offering.
There’s no denying, though, that the technology has some way to go. It needs to be faster for starters and costs are going to have to come down. Yet today’s climate sees many printers frantically searching around for ‘added-value’ services to offer. And though it might quite rightly be claimed that the biggest thing 2D and 3D print have in common is the word ‘print’, there’s no reason why 3D print shouldn’t be brought in-house in the same way that a design studio, data-processing department or logistics service might. So although in 2011 it was a “no”, this is perhaps an area commercial printers should be keeping an eye on in 2012 and beyond.