Is 3D Printing Like 2D Printing? A Veteran Says Yes on TechCrunch
In October, we published a critique of an article by TechCrunch contributor Jon Evans that disparaged the future of 3D printing.
In the early 1980s, Bill Gates was widely known to say “640K is more memory than anyone will ever need on a computer.” This famous quote seems laughable today as your standard home computer, tablet and phone are equipped with gigabytes of memory.
Well, today TechCrunch writer Jon Evans makes a similarly myopic claim about the 3D printer market, “There is no reason for any individual to have a 3D printer in their home.” We are sure Evans would love being compared to Gates, but let’s look more closely at his argument.
While we agree with Evans’ two predictions about online providers and tech shops, we do not agree with his assertion that there won’t be 3D printers in the home. Look at other markets: personal computers, inkjet or laser printers, photo printers, etc. In each of these cases, this technology started out expensive and niche, but eventually moved into the mainstream and enabled new industries to blossom.
Well, we’re not alone. 3D printing enthusiast and sales veteran John Hauer published a guest post “counter rant” on TechCrunch, where he sheds light on the subject from his perspective of 20+ years in 2D printing.
As far as history goes, 2D digital printing didn’t develop overnight. At first it was painful and expensive. File formats were incompatible, the devices were slow, quality was suspect, substrates were limited, and finishing was manual. Like 2D, as 3D printing matures, file issues will be resolved, speed and quality will improve, substrate options will expand, and finishing will become automated. Breakeven run lengths between digital and traditional processes will rise. At some point the “printers triangle” will be better optimized – you will be able to get quality, turnaround, and price, simultaneously.
Will it ever be as cheap to print 100,000 toys as it is to die-cast or injection-mold them? Probably not, but cost is not the only motivator for people’s buying decisions. Just as with 2D digital printing, people also buy based on the ability to customize or personalize — or because it is more convenient — even when the price is higher than that of a generic item produced in bulk.
In a previous article, Jon made the point that “communal 3D printer shops” will serve the majority of future needs. He forecasts that in high-infrastructure areas, web-to-print providers like Stratasys will supply consumers and that in low-infrastructure areas, people will use local printing facilities. Beyond the desktop, this is how 2D consumers are being served today, though I don’t think it’s as much about infrastructure as it is a matter of convenience. There are times when it makes more sense for me to order print online, pay a bit less and wait for delivery, and other times when I order locally, pay a bit more, and pick the product up.
This level of infrastructure to me is the most important point and why 3D is like 2D printing. Web-to-print solutions exist for both platforms, allowing consumers to enter specifications, upload files, and check out. Days later, the product arrives. What hasn’t been developed yet is the retail side of 3D print. Those who say it’s not print, but rather “additive manufacturing” believe it should fall squarely in the purview of machine shops, injection molders, and the like. The problem is, those businesses are not geared toward consumers. They don’t have retail locations, they don’t market to consumers, and they typically don’t have the business model or point-of-purchase systems to deal with small consumer transactions.
Who does have that kind of infrastructure? Traditional printers, office supply stores, and shipping giants like FedEx (Kinko’s) and UPS (Mail Boxes etc.). They receive files from clients every day (different, I know), offer several printing methods (black and white, color, large format) and multiple finishing methods (trimming, binding, lamination). They are located in retail areas, are used to dealing with and educating consumers, and have the ability to handle and process a lot of small orders.
2D print shops also relatively standardized and well-networked, allowing them to effectively sell the “distribute-then-print” concept. Need copies of a presentation in Altanta? Why print it in Ohio and carry it when you can print it there. How long do you imagine it will be until we’re distributing then printing objects in the same manner? Seems like a pretty clear case of history repeating itself to me.
Thanks John, for sharing your point of view!
This Print Shop photo by tombothetominator used under Creative Commons license.