Tech Watch: 3-D printer market poised for big growth

The cost of hardware and consumables in the 3-D printer market is dropping, bringing the technology within reach of a much broader group of customers than in the past.

The world of printing is entering a new dimension.

The proliferation of three-dimensional visual software -- tied to solid modeling and architectural applications as well as interest in cyber games and virtual communities such as Second Life -- has sparked an interest in technology that can output this content. In effect, more businesses are seeking ways to render 3-D models not just on the computer screen but in the real world.

Until recently, the means to do this came in the form of 3-D printers, priced starting at about $20,000 at the entry level. Traditional customers have included service bureaus and larger companies that had the wherewithal to make a substantial capital investment. But several hardware companies are now bringing 3-D printers to a broader audience of small businesses and educational institutions. The logical route to market for these products is the traditional computer-aided design (CAD) or modeling value-added reseller (VAR), a technology solution provider interested in helping clients implement rapid prototyping technology.

Wohlers Associates, a research firm in Denver, predicted in Wohlers Report 2007 that worldwide revenue for 3-D printing equipment would reach $1.15 billion in 2007 and $1.35 billion in 2008, compared with actual worldwide revenue of $984 million in 2006. This marks a turning point for the nascent segment, said the firm's principal, Terry Wohlers. "The cost-benefit factor has changed," he said. "These printers now use better materials. They are faster and more reliable."

What's more, the design software and modeling world has finally stepped into three dimensions, which has prompted smaller architectural firms and manufacturers to pull prototyping functions in-house that they would have previously outsourced. "3-D printers are the next logical step in this evolution," Wohlers said. "In business and industry, if you don't have a tool and your competitors do, you will fall behind."

Today, 3-D printers are primarily used to create prototype models of anything from a building design to a new toy out of resin or starch, evading the cost of setting up a manufacturing line to create samples.

In the medical or dental professions, these printers might be used to transfer two-dimensional images such as x-ray films into three-dimensional depictions of teeth, bones or other body parts. Most of the devices work using STL files, the format commonly output by many widely used CAD software packages. Images might also be processed using an image captured by a 3-D scanner, such as a $2,400 product from NextEngine that has a 6-inch turntable on which you can place the object to be scanned. (The scanner requires multiple passes to capture the data needed to produce a 3-D model that can be printed.) The output is created, or built, as the printer stacks layer upon layer of raw materials -- such as powders or resins. Don't expect speedy results: Printing can easily eat up eight hours for a modest object 3 inches wide by 4 inches tall.

One factor that has slowed the growth of 3-D printing is the expense associated with the consumables needed to create the output models, according to Cathy Lewis, CEO of Desktop Factory in Pasadena, Calif. Pricing is figured on a cost-per-cubic-inch basis and can easily run $8 to $10 per cubic inch and up, she said. Little wonder, then, that some 3-D printing service bureaus charge about $50 per cubic inch for their services.

Desktop Factory's goal is to create a sub-$5,000 desktop unit that produces models at a per-cubic-inch price close to $1, according to Lewis. Its Desktop Factory 125ci 3-D printer, currently in beta testing and expected to ship in early 2009, uses a nylon-based powder to create its output.

VARs will be the way to sell Desktop Factory's printers, and the company already has more than 1,000 emails from potential distribution partners, Lewis said. But she is also exploring relationships with office service bureaus, where small businesses and individuals can request 3-D print jobs without investing in the equipment. Why not allow some to print, for example, a model of their child's favorite video game hero to become familiar with the option? "This will build awareness. We need to encourage people to use them," she said.

Frank Mancini, president and CEO of IRG Plotters & Printers in Santa Monica, Calif., said many of his customers are exploring the notion of 3-D printing. In particular, manufacturing businesses are studying the technology as a means of creating noncritical spare parts on the fly, helping to reduce warehousing costs. However, Mancini said the stagnating economy has prompted many companies to put their 3-D printer investments on hold. "It's not moving as fast now as it was, but not due to lack of interest or lack of need," Mancini said. "In my opinion, it's because of the lack of accessibility to the funds necessary to invest."

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An open source project called Fab@Home, originating out of Cornell University, is bringing low-priced 3-D printing capabilities to academic applications, which, according to Wohlers Associates, is one of the biggest potential markets for this technology.

Evan Malone, a Cornell graduate student, said the original "fabber" was developed to create and evaluate prototypes associated with his doctoral work in robotics. After discussing the project at a conference, he exposed the design to the public domain through the Fab@Home website. Now, hobbyists and systems integrators are creating their own versions, similar to the early days of the computer industry when many engineering students experimented with so-called kit computers. "Why be hogtied to commercial technology?" he said.

Z Corp. and Stratasys are probably the most established of the 3-D printer companies, Terry Wohlers said. Both rely heavily on VARs, especially those with a CAD or CAM practice, to represent their products.

Z Corp. works with about 185 resellers worldwide, although it is seeking additional resellers that have a proven background in 3D software solutions, said Joe Titlow, director of product management. "The vision of our company has always been to make 3-D printing as fast and as easy as printing on paper," he said.

One caveat that might make some resellers think twice before investing in a 3-D printing practice with Z Corp. -- they'll need to invest in at least one demo unit for the products they're representing. Z Corp.'s printer line starts at $19,900 and ranges up to $49,900 for the high-end edition. Wohlers said the company is the sales leader in technology that can produce color models; most 3-D printers are still limited to black and white.

Products from Dimension, a division of Stratasys, start at $18,900 for the Dimension BST line.

About the author
Heather Clancy is an award-winning business journalist and consultant on high-tech channel communications with SWOT Management Group. She can be reached at hclancy@swotmg.com.


This was first published in May 2008

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