To 3D or Not To 3D – Is it Time for That Question?

By on February 20th, 2013

In a recent Wall Street Journal, I read an article about Intel preparing to launch a paid Internet video service with set-top box, and a separate article about Comcast buying the remaining 49% of NBC/Universal that it did not already own, from General Electric Co.  The Comcast story made the front page; the country’s largest cable company, a distributor of content, now fully owns and controls some content as well.  The strategy behind this move may ultimately prove to be successful, or maybe not, but it seems logical.  More interesting to me was the Intel story.  How does this make sense?

A company that rarely markets to consumers enters a substantial field of competitors looking to transform the television watching experience, profitably, of course.  There are the expected features, such as a programming interface that makes it much easier to find shows than existing guides on current set-top boxes from other providers.  Intel’s set-top box, powered by Intel chips, then goes farther.  It will include a high-def video camera and facial recognition technology to know who is watching the TV, and adjust programing appropriately.  So Intel is taking its chips, and is venturing into new-product territory with their core technology as a part of it.  Seems risky, but I get the connection.

These seemingly incongruous marriages got me thinking about our industry, and about any connections to be made to the hot “new” technology, 3D Printing.  A challenge, though, is that 3D Printing has mostly really been 3D Manufacturing, referring to the layering of something that is generally not ink onto itself, and sometimes onto something else that is generally not paper.  The term “3D Printing” already seems to have as many meanings as the term “Fulfillment”.  Available right now, 3D printing devices include prototype makers and on-demand manufacturing devices for auto parts, prosthetics, and more.  Jay Leno owns one to print some hard-to-find parts for his car collection.  The vision for the not-too-distant future of 3D Printers range from life-saving, (medicines and organs), to, well, just goofy stuff.  Some of the materials used in currently available 3D Printing devices are ABS plastic, epoxy resin, silver, titanium, steel, wax, and now . . . paper and ink.   This got me back to thinking about our industry, where significant substrate, ink, and color knowledge resides.

An Ireland-based commercial 3D printer manufacturer, Mcor Technologies, has created the IRIS 3D printer.  I learned about it through various reports that Staples intends to use it to offer 3D printing this year, starting in Belgium and the Netherlands.  According to Mcor’s website the device cuts regular A4 office paper to form 0.1mm layers. Photo-realistic color printing of each sheet can be done in over a million colors, using CMYK, with resolutions of 5760 x 1440 x 508dpi using their color technology.  Each printed sheet is then glued to the previous to form a “printed” object with a hardness similar to wood. The technician removes the surrounding support paper from the object.

Do those of you involved in a transition from black and white document printing to color, or from static color to production variable color, remember thinking at first that it would be a piece of cake; that running a high-volume roll-fed color inkjet printer would be just like the printer on your desktop, except, well, bigger?  Strong knowledge of paper/substrates, ink and color are critical to shortening the learning curve on these new technology implementations, and many of us took advantage of and appreciated the training provided by our printer manufacturers.

Unquestionably, using ink and paper to create (fill in the blank) is a very new subset of 3D Printing.  Can you see a market that can be served, or a product that would be valued by current or new customers, to augment your current offerings – perhaps point-of-sale pieces?  Can the knowledge and experience of your staff, those who understand paper, and ink, and color, become a foundation for your company’s expansion and diversification?  Can the color experts you have on your team designing for, or those running that wide-format inkjet printer, be able to apply these skills to new areas? The process you use for the assessment of and integration of new technologies is critically important, and should be rigorous and well-defined.

So, Intel has the chip in the set-top box for their video service; does your company have a core competency, or foundation for expansion or diversification into 3D Printing?  Is it the right time for printers to start looking at 3D as part of a broader offering in the future?  What are your thoughts?

Debra McMahon

R3D2 Consulting, LLC

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    One Response to “To 3D or Not To 3D – Is it Time for That Question?”

    1. Rick Ciordia Says:

      Debra, a timely article for our industry! PDS of Nashville, TN. had an open house this week. On the floor of their showroom was digital print devices as well as finishing equipment from Standard and other vendors but what caught some intense interest was the 3D systems Projet 1500 3d prototype printer shown by Novacopy of Nashville to the over 95 visitors to this open house! Science fiction for many, but a disruptive technology that will affect our industry and many others in the future!