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
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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

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