3D Printing: Thoughts From Around the Industry

By | September 27, 2013

It’s funny. When I post things, I never know what’s going to take off in terms of interaction and comments. I didn’t think Tuesday’s post on 3D printing would be one of them. I was wrong.

Not only have there been a nearly record number of comments on Digital Nirvana, but I shared in a variety of LinkedIn boards, as well. There, too, it caught on in a way that surprised me.

Here are some nutshells of what I’ve heard:

1. Despite the high volume of blog posts, trade magazine articles, Webinars, seminars, and other industry chatter about this process, there have only been two printing locations that were identified as actually owning 3D printers. Both are in the world of packaging.

2. There are lots of opportunities for product development in this market, but currently, it mainly consists of pioneers doing one-off projects.

3. There are those in this industry who want to call this process “printing.” Their reasoning largely — not always, but largely — revolves around its ability to create visibility and position perception for the printing industry.

I’m not sure this is a good thing. Although printing is technically considered “manufacturing” according to the U.S. Census, the general consensus is that the term carries a connotation that isn’t accurately represented by 3D printing as an additive manufacturing process. (As it was pointed out — and I agree — Scodix, lenticular, and printing on 3D objects like golf balls would be more accurately described this way.)

Giving a process an inaccurate label, even in the name of promoting and supporting the overall health the printing industry, creates confusion and distraction. Better, in my mind, to give it an accurate label that properly focuses people on the opportunities for what they truly are.

4. If there are terms that more accurately describe 3D printing, they would be “additive manufacturing” (although is one-off manufacturing really manufacturing? that’s a whole other debate) or “rapid prototyping.” One person also suggested “3D modeling.”

My favorite quote in the whole discussion comes from Erik Nikkanen, printing theory and technology development (Toronto, Canada), who said, “It is not printing unless one takes the 3D object and puts it in a hydraulic press so it can be glued to paper.”

Let’s keep the discussion going and see what else continues to shake out.

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14 thoughts on “3D Printing: Thoughts From Around the Industry

  1. Paul J Gardner

    “…there have only been two printing locations that were identified as actually owning 3D printers.”

    Please add a third location: Hudson Printing, Salt Lake City.

    In July we purchased a Cube-X Duo!

  2. Chuck Stempler

    “…there have only been two printing locations that were identified as actually owning 3D printers.”

    Please add a fourth location: Alphagraphics Seattle WA.

    In June we installed a Cube-X Duo!

  3. David Gardner

    I’ll field that question. Definitely in the sea legs stage. While we purchased the CubeX in July, the team responsible for it’s operation (half of which being me) have only been working with it for a couple weeks. We are working towards some ideas that will hopefully be worth sharing shortly.

    Some other thoughts on the discussion:

    The term 3D printing. It seems the print industry really gets hung up on this term. Whether it applies or now, what printing actually means. The responses range from “this is absolutely print” to “nothing since the letterpress has truly been print.” But it is not us, as an industry, coining the term. It may have started as marketing jargon to make the public at large comfortable with the devices, but they have accepted it. And it fits. The public, the makers, the people using these devices every day call them 3D printers. You use that term and people get what you’re talking about. Now, whether or not these devices have an application outside a conversation piece within a more traditional print shop would be a much more useful conversation to have.

  4. Aurelia

    Only three companies own 3D printer in America?

    Paul, I am also interested to know how 3D printers are used in a printing company.

    And Heidi, could you explain what packaging companies do with 3D printed?

    Thank you.

  5. Paul J Gardner

    Very much still learning. We’ve had far more failures than successes. But as we learn about the limitations and constraints of the machine, we’re getting better.

    One of our key interests is to start some fun conversations with our clients.
    Another is to explore the first two millimeters… that is, to find out what kinds of interesting things we can achieve while limiting ourselves to the thickness of a nice, deep emboss.

  6. Dan Halmar

    The advent of 3D “printing” feels to me like the excitement at the dawning of the new invention called the “telephone”. You know the potential is there to revolutionize the way things are done…you’re just not sure how it’s going to play out.

  7. Heidi Tolliver-Walker Post author

    Yup! Lots of interesting ideas have been posted in the discussion that continues from last Friday’s post. If you haven’t seen it, you might want to check it out. A number of “on the ground” examples are being given, which is really great and what I love to see.

  8. Todd Wright

    Heidi using the term “printing” references the replication process both traditional printers and 3D printers use. Additive manufacturing refers to the process of adding a thin layer of materials instead of using a mold or taking away material to create your piece. Using a 3D printer does not equate to a one off manufacturing, many companies are either in the process of changing or already have changed to making parts that are small and use precise manufacturing. 3D printing is making great strides, some really wonderful medical advances, and you can play with one and make your own devices.

  9. Robyn

    Heidi, I can only see six responses but I’m very interested in the ‘on the ground’ examples which you say have been brought up in ‘the discussion that continues from last Friday’s post’ – how can I see it? Australia is typically a market of innovators and we are seeing the first applications of 3D print here for applications like architectural models, prototypes and similar – I’m told, however, that some enterprising shopfront print operations are offering ‘print your own’ phone cases which is an interesting ‘add on’ to a traditional print service. Anyhow, if you’re able to tell me how I can view the discussion, I’d be very interested. Thanks!

  10. Noel Jeffrey

    Everything I’ve read about the processes suggests that 3D prototyping might be the most accurate description for now. However, since the future seems to include “printing” body parts and more, perhaps we need to expand our thinking to include yet another form of “printing.”

  11. Heath Cajandig

    3D Printing is really exciting and as Noel suggests, it is really 3D prototyping that describes it best. Additive prototyping since other machines have been reducing materials to prototype for some time.

    I believe the printing industry failed to define the story with the term “3D printing” which should have removed the word “Printing”. The end result, I fear, is that real printing will be perceived as even less exciting than it is today next to this.

  12. Heidi Tolliver-Walker Post author

    Hi, Robyn. The previous post can be found here:


    But it’s also possible that some of what I’m thinking is coming from the LinkedIn groups, too. I posted this link in the Digital Printing and Print Production Professionals groups, and both have generated quite a bit of discussion as they have here. If you are a member of either of those groups, I would check them out. I’m not suggesting there are huge volumes of on-the-ground examples, but some have been suggested. Largely in the area of prototyping, including custom displays for trade shows and similar projects.

  13. Kevin Abergel

    Thanks for launching such an interesting topic that has generated a lot of buzz around 3D. I sincerely believe that this debate around the definition of “Printing” is purely testimony to the advances in technology that are growing at a faster pace than that of the English language. This is a good thing, and whether 3D printing is or is not considered printing, it is generating a high level of buzz.
    When we decided to name our digital spot UV coater the JETvarnish 3D, I can tell you that our test groups had a much higher reaction rate to the word 3D than any other word we tried to incorporate into name of the machine. We even internally use the terms “2D” and “3D” varnish as a quick and easy way to discern the different thicknesses of the varnish
    In my opinion, 3D printing defined as “additive manufacturing” makes the most sense, but let’s be honest, there is not a high level of sex appeal in the term. The manufacturers “3D Printers” are using the term “printer” as it is an easy and efficient way of describing the process, all while giving the media something sexy to write about. It’s a win win.

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