Is There Money in 3D Printing?

While the market for 3D printers and services is not exactly exploding, some channel pros have embraced the technology and are reaping big rewards. By James E. Gaskin

Remember that shipping company commercial a few years ago in which a young boy clicked the "buy" button and a football came flying out of his printer? 3D printing isn't there yet for consumers, but some channel pros are getting into 3D printing for resale and as a managed service.

High-end 3D printers have been around for 25 years under the "additive manufacturing" heading. Tim Caffrey, associate consultant at Wohlers Associates Inc., the firm that has released the yearly "State of the Industry" reports on 3D printing since 1997, says, "We split the market into $5,000 and under units as personal, and above that are industrial systems." In 2007, 66 personal 3D printers were sold. In 2012, the number topped 35,500. "The sweet spot for resellers will be the $10,000 to $75,000, medium-priced printers," says Caffrey.

THE PIONEERS
Ron Robinson started IT Data Storage outside Atlanta about 13 years ago and last year spun off 3D CAD Printer Inc., a company that resells and rents desktop 3D printers and scanners. "During my first printer demo to Lockheed Martin," says Robinson, "they bought the printer. Now they need a larger one to make larger parts." Robinson has been doing free demos at Georgia Tech to get printers placed in the college's libraries, and is pitching a local Alpha Graphics store.

Similarly, Kim Brand, founder of Computer Experts Inc. in downtown Indianapolis, launched a 3D printer services company, 3D Parts Manufacturing LLC. The centerpiece is a $750,000 EOS system that makes 3D parts from metal using direct metal laser sintering (DMLS). "We're working on a trifecta strategy," says Brand. "First is printing services; then engineering services to help legacy manufacturing companies adapt their skills; and a managed printer service to put 3D printers, as well as support, consulting, and an engineer, inside companies."

Brand says two managed services contracts are in negotiations currently, and the main branch of the Indianapolis Library just ordered a Stratasys Ltd. Objet30 Pro printer (about $50,000) to increase its reputation as a center for innovation. Brand likens the market to "personal computing back in 1975 to 1980, before the IBM PC came out. 3D printing and robotics make manufacturing cool again."

Caffrey's research found that about 56,000 industrial printers were sold since 1998. Personal 3D printers are only 6.5 percent of the market, even though sales are expanding and industrial leader Stratasys purchased consumer leader MakerBot Industries LLC for $403 million earlier this past June. "A recent big win for 3D printing is GE Aviation's purchase of EOS metal printers to make 25,000 fuel nozzles for its jet engines via 3D printing," says Caffrey. 3D printers shine making expensive, low-volume parts, including teeth, hip implants, and even custom housings for in-ear hearing aids.

That said, the market remains small, says Pete Basiliere, research director at Gartner Inc. "More 2D printers are sold in two days than all the 3D printers sold in 30 years combined."

EQUIPMENT NEEDED
3D manufacturing also requires a 3D scanner and 3D CAD software that can export design files in .STL (stereolithography) format. AutoCAD and SolidWorks are popular, and a variety of open source applications are available. Microsoft, for its part, sees enough promise in the technology to include MakerBot drivers in Windows 8.1. In support, 18 Microsoft store locations will have MakerBot Replicator 2 3D printers available.

Basiliere says channel pros' success is modest now. "Today's VARs are really laying the foundation for a market that will grow dramatically over the next five years," he says. Interested resellers "should buy a printer and try using it in-house. Let the staff experiment with it and encourage the marketing and salespeople to think of ways their customers could use the technology."

Robinson believes the 3D printing vendor market will explode, especially on the low end, as patents expire. "That's when we'll see Chinese and Japanese 3D printers everywhere."

For more information on 3D printing, go to www.3ders.org, which does an excellent job of covering 3D printer news and the latest printing technology trends.

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