3D printing: The shape of things to come

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This article appeared in the February 2016 issue of CRN magazine.

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3D printing: The shape of things to come

3D printing has become one of the most hyped technologies of the past decade, thanks in part to far-reaching stories of printing everything from houses to human organs. 

While those technologies might one day become mainstream, the current market for simple desktop 3D devices making solid objects from plastic filaments has grown quickly, thanks to an influx of product and falling prices. These devices range in price from a few hundred dollars (such as the $499 printer launched by Aldi this week) for a basic unit up to several thousand dollars for more sophisticated devices. From there, prices ascend to tens of thousands of dollars for devices capable of printing high-quality objects in metals.

Deloitte has estimated that nearly 220,000 3D printers were sold in 2015 globally – double the number for 2014 – with a market value of US$1.6 billion. Do these numbers represent an opportunity for the Australian IT channel? Numerous vendors hope so, including Konica Minolta, which has opened its 3D printing practice up to its partner community, while newer players such as Me3D and MakerBot are also looking for reseller partners.

The Australian 3D printing channel expanded in earnest back in February 2014 when Officeworks began selling the 3D Cube Printer. Officeworks has since increased its range of 3D hardware and consumables for personal or business use, including selling a combined 3D printer and scanner. The company also offers a 3D printing service and has opened a 3D Experience Centre on Russell Street in Melbourne, where people can have themselves scanned and printed in 3D in ‘Mini Me’ format.

“We have had a lot of interest in 3D printing hardware over the past six months as people have wanted to get a taste of the new technology,” says Officeworks’ head of technology Toby Watson. “There has been particular curiosity from people purchasing 3D printers for their home.

“Most customers are buying these printers for their personal creative projects, whether it be their chess set, custom tool-bit holders, prototypes, toys, phone cases, bracelets or even Christmas decorations – and they can range from engineers to cake people designing figurines.”

Watson says he has also seen increasing interest in professional uses. “In particular, we see lots of potential for councils, real estate agents, designers, architects, engineers, educational institutns and manufacturing.”

But any reseller expecting an easy transition from selling traditional printers and multifunction devices may be in for a shock, according to Joe Farr, general manager of one of Australia’s oldest 3D printing specialists, Melbourne-based Thinglab.

“[3D printing] is often compared to 2D printing, but it is very different,” Farr says. “You are building a 3D model. They used to call it rapid manufacturing or additive manufacturing, and that is probably a more suitable way of looking at it, rather than as printing. There is a lot of background knowledge still in the design part of things, so it doesn’t have issues when it comes to print.”

One of the most active champions of 3D printing in the IT channel is Melbourne value-added distributor Alloys, which has signed on as the exclusive Australian distributor for the popular MakerBot 3D printers. Chief executive officer Paul Harman says the strategy has been driven in part by Alloys’ existing partner community, which services the traditional computer-aided design (CAD) market and has been seeking, – when somebody moves from the customer to the supplier side – support with 3D printing.

“The only thing it has in common with a traditional printer is the word ‘printer’ in the title,” Harman says. “What we are trying to do is make the technology available in a consistent way to a broader range of partners. We are trying to demystify the technology and, by and large, we have been able to do that in 2015.”

Harman says  the greatest interest has come from companies wanting it for the rapid prototyping, such as creating moulds or prototypes for manufacturing work, and from the education sector. 

While 2D printers are often sold at a discounted price to drive the sale of consumables, Harman says the economics of 3D printing are very different. “The filament market is not a revenue stream for the print manufacturers, so the price of the box does matter. What we tend to find is the cheaper the box, the harder it is to manage and to live with, so your costs come in frustration and annoyance and downtime.”

Hence he cautions there is much more to 3D printing than simply installing the device and walking away. That means understanding of how to use software tools to get the most out of the device, and to ensure they are correctly configured for the desired results.

But Thinglab’s Farr says some of the hype might be fading as the realities of owning and running a 3D printer sink in. “We are on the downward slope of the hype curve at the moment,” he says.. 

“But what is still there is small and large business looking to implement the technology or expand their  capacity.” 

Next: 3D printing milestones in the Australian channel


Milestones: Growth in Australian channel

May 2014 - Synnex brings 3D printing to Australia

Synnex Australia struck an agreement with 3D Systems, making it the first major IT distributor to offer 3D printers direct to the channel.

March 2015 - Alloys brings in 3D print giant MakerBot

MakerBot, one of the world’s leading 3D printer manufacturers, signed its first Australian distribution partner, Melbourne-based Alloys. The milestone deal gave MakerBot access to more than 1000 resellers and four showrooms throughout the country.

April 2015 - Datacom bringing 3D printers to Australian schools

Datacom partnered with distributor 3D Printing Systems and software vendor Makers Empire to offer a full 3D printing solution to primary schools. The trans-Tasman IT provider will supply the 3D printing hardware, software and training for teachers to integrate 3D printing programs into their curriculum.  

May 2015 - Australia’s largest Autodesk reseller joins 3D printing wave

Australia’s largest Autodesk reseller, A2K Technologies, joined the local 3D printing channel by announcing would sell “a range of 3D printers”, including devices capable of printing down to a resolution of 20 microns. MakerBot and Ultimaker were the first brands.

May 2015 - Konica Minolta reseller network to offer 3D printers

More than 70 Konica Minolta dealers around Australia were able to sell 3D printers from 3D Systems, in the first move by the company’s Australian arm into 3D printing.

June 2015 - Officeworks launches 3D print

Officeworks added 3D printing to its catalogue, with the service officially launched at the Melbourne CBD store in Russell Street.

September 2015 - Aussie 3D print startup scores AFL deal

3D print provider 333D signed a deal with the Australian Football League to collaborate with the league to commercialise 3D printing for future mechanising and licensing.

December 2015 - Datacom deploys 3D print in South Australian schools

Datacom is deploying 3D printers technology to 28 primary schools in South Australia as part of a one-year pilot in partnership with the Department of Education and Child Development.


Next: Blended Reality

Blended reality

The growth of 3D printing is taking place in parallel with the emergence of new tools for virtual reality and 3D design and visualisation, including the soon to be released Oculus Rift virtual reality headset from Facebook.

But the technology to view and print 3D content is of little value if there is no 3D content to play with. To this end HP has released Sprout, an all-in-one PC equipped with a large, 20-point capacitive touch canvas and sensor arm (dubbed an ‘illuminator’), including an Intel RealSense 3D camera and scanner that sits above it.

“We don’t believe it is just another product in the wider portfolio of all-in-one PCs,” says Paul Burman, national product training specialist at HP.

 

“We see it as its own category of computing. The ultimate goal of Sprout is to enable the user to go from thought to expression in an instant.”

Burman sees the initial market for Sprout as ‘classroom-of-the-future’ environments and in the ‘maker’ community that has already adopted 3D printing. He says it is especially suited for those people who have creative flair, but limited technical ability.

“What Sprout by HP does is breaks down those barriers and enables your creativity to be limited only by your imagination. If you have technical ability you can do what you have already been doing easier and faster and better.”

To date Sprout is only being sold through Harvey Norman, with which HP has worked to place HP-trained ambassadors to sell the products. HP has no immediate plans to expand its channel strategy.

“We have been dealing with Harvey Norman for well over 25 years,” Burman says. “Sprout is a unique product, so it is really important for customers to have an environment where they can see and use it, as well as being able to receive really detailed advice.”

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