The Third Dimension: The Next Frontier in On-Demand Printing?

By | February 9, 2011

Although it’s not something typically associated directly with the print industry, three-dimensional (3D) printing is gaining a lot of traction as a way to revolutionize and democratize manufacturing. 3D printing is used largely in general manufacturing, architecture, engineering, industrial design, and other areas that rely on rapid prototyping. It’s an additive manufacturing technology, meaning that layers of powder or polymer material are added and adhered on top of each other to create a three-dimensional object. Inkjet printer heads are even available in some 3D printers to create full-color objects. The actual “object printing” functionality is driven by a 3D computer model, which is typically generated via 3D modeling software or 3D scanners. Depending on the material and the process, the end-result can range from a quick, reusable mock-up for a design to a commercial, industrial-strength product like a gear (or more recently, an iPhone case).

I find many parallels in what’s happening to prototyping and manufacturing via 3D printing with print-on-demand and self-publishing. 3D printers are cheaper, faster counterparts to large-scale rapid prototyping devices that are more costly to acquire and operate. As such, businesses that rely on prototyping have adopted 3D printing to be more agile. In addition, one of the more intriguing services that has been enabled by 3D printing is Web-based on-demand object manufacturing. Similar to a self-publishing or ad-hoc job submission method we find in online print ordering, customers can upload a 3D design or scan to a Website and, for a fee, get a physical, three-dimensional product shipped to them in a matter of days.

Last year, the New York Times did a piece on how 3D printing is spurring innovation in manufacturing and beyond. Charles Overy, the founder of a company that provides 3D printing and modeling services to architects, was quoted in the article as saying, “we are moving from handcraft to digital craft.” Hmm… where have I heard that mantra before?

There are plenty of Web-based 3D printing services out there today that you should definitely take a look at when you get the chance. Shapeways is one of the more popular of these sites right now, as it has the capability for users to go beyond a one-off order and actually sell their products in a community-driven marketplace. Products are printed on-demand as they are ordered, and arrive within as little as 10 days after an order is placed. Sculpteo also has a similar community marketplace approach, as well as a professional service that includes customer service and volume discounts. i.materialise has a nice interface for ordering 3D printed objects, and recently shared its experience about a suspicious order it received for an ATM card skimmer (yikes!).

As stated, actually generating a 3D model requires either a modeling application or a three-dimensional scanner. There are a wide variety of 3D modeling software solutions out there that can create files compatible with 3D printing. On the free side, you have applications like Blender and Google SketchUp, while on the not-so-free side you have Rhino3D and other 3D modeling applications that seem to have been acquired by Autodesk over the past decade (3ds Max and Maya come to mind). 3D scanning is a bit more of a difficult proposition, especially for consumers that do not have experience with 3D modeling software. Vendors ranging from NextEngine to Konica Minolta to ZCorporation offer 3D scanning technology using varying methodologies for specific purposes. There are attempts to make more readily-available, low-cost 3D scanning technology to meet the broader needs of 3D printing.

Regarding the actual 3D printers themselves, there are equally as many options available as there are modeling and scanning software. The options range in overall device cost, materials & processes used (and associated costs), footprint, color capabilities, and more. Device costs can range from a few thousand to a few hundred thousand dollars. On the professional side, vendors like 3D Systems, Arcam, Objet, Stratasys, and ZCorporation provide multiple models for multiple purposes. Many of these vendors started by providing large-scale rapid prototyping devices and have moved into 3D printing due to the various benefits it provides. Additionally, MakerBot Industries, which was spawned out of the “maker” community, has started selling 3D printers for around $2,000 with the aim to make 3D printing widely accessible for home use.

Could 3D printing become more heavily adopted in the two-dimensional print industry? When I worked at RIT’s Digital Publishing Center, we acquired a ZCorporation 3D printer to support the industrial design department’s endeavors in this area. We trained a number of student employees on the device and workflow process, and regularly took these types of jobs in (as far as I know, that’s still the case today). This was an easy decision because we knew the demand was there; we had industrial design students that would regularly use it.

While there are some similarities in workflow between on-demand 2D print and on-demand 3D print, it may be more difficult to justify investment in this area for most service providers. Significant efforts would likely be needed in marketing and sales to grow 3D printing services, and the workflow is not nearly as automated as current print-on-demand workflows can be (e.g., a person will typically have to look at every 3D design to determine if it can be printed or not).

Nevertheless, 3D printing is growing, and for the entrepreneurial service provider, it could be a new opportunity to get into an adjacent line of business. Definitely keep an eye out on what happens in this space over the next few years, and see if it makes sense for your business to pursue.

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4 thoughts on “The Third Dimension: The Next Frontier in On-Demand Printing?

  1. David Neff

    Hello Bryan,

    A good friend of mine, Andrew gordon, forwarded your blog on to me. Thanks for the call out, nice to see our name spread about. Just for the record, our price is way sub 2K, in fact you can pick up our current kit for $1225.

    If you’re ever in town, drop a note and I’ll be glad to show you the Botcave and our machines.


    David Neff,

    GM Makerbot Industries, LLC

  2. Bryan Yeager

    David, thanks for your comment! Apologies for the price mismatch; it’s great to see that you’re making 3D printing technology that affordable. The Botcave sounds intriguing and would love to check it out sometime.

  3. Richard Wright

    I strongly agree that the business model of 2D print service providers and 3D share very similar customer relationship and workflow. It is important to realize that much can leveraged from 2D and applied to 3D, there are also differences.

    One similarity is the rapid pace of innovation where capabilities of the equipment are improving and costs are reducing. Those considering a 3D output service business, should factor in this rapid pace of change and the reality of the customer opting to buy their own equipment. Customers will buy their own equipment when they think the cost of using and outside service is more than doing it themselves. This was the case with color proofing.

    Successful service providers will need to:
    – Quickly recoup equipment investments
    – Be willing to invest in promising new equipment
    – Provide continually improving service to clients
    – Understand pricing dynamics and perceived customer value new and unique capability vs a commodity service

    Differences to consider:
    – Skill sets for visualizing in 3D are different, don’t assume people talented in 2D will pick up 3D right away
    – The software tools are not the same. Think indesign vs AutoCad


  4. Kilbourn

    Wat een goede blog post!
    Alles over 3d heeft altijd onze aandacht.
    We zijn benieuwd naar nieuwe toepassingen en we houden je blog in de gaten.

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