Is 3D Printing Really Printing?

By | September 24, 2013

Is it just me? Or does it bother anyone else that 3D printing is being called “printing”?

3D printing is the process of using a short-run additive manufacturing process to create 3D objects. The printer drips out the substrate, usually plastic or liquid metal, and based on data provided by the 3D modeling software, manufactures the item. It is a slow process, taking from minutes to hours to days, creating one item at a time.

Although 3D printers are based on the concept of inkjet printing, this isn’t printing. It’s manufacturing. The process is being used to create everything from promotional items to machine parts to components for the space shuttle. It’s even being used to create prosthetics.

The process is being touted heavily in the printing industry (and there are those who will argue that it is, in fact, printing). We hear about it at seminars, via Webinars, in magazine articles and discussion groups. But when we hear about the products being manufactured, very few of them seem to have any relevance to what we’re producing in the printing industry.

In this industry, we might think about the opportunity to cross-sell a client on personalized promotional items to accompany a direct mail campaign, produce unique display stands manufactured to support a client’s display materials at an upcoming trade show, or create prototypes of an architect’s latest project to accompany the collateral marketing materials, for example.

But is this really printing? Some people do refer to printing as “print manufacturing.” Instead of manufacturing in 2D, the argument goes, it’s manufacturing in 3D. The “printing” technology is similar. Output for both processes is based on data from a file. The substrates are just different.

But when we take a step back, you’re talking about not just very different products but entirely different markets, product end uses, and like. To me, 3D printing is a complementary process to commercial printing, but a different process altogether.

What do you think?


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24 thoughts on “Is 3D Printing Really Printing?

  1. Chuck Gehman

    It is not printing, it’s better described as “making”. Calling it printing is just a convenient way to explain it to consumers and “the public”. Unfortunately, this description stuck.

    Woe be the printer who actually tries to sell this to his customers, though. We’ve seen some stories about this, and I would categorize this as a foolish move. There is no relationship between the skillset of actualy printing, and those required to succeed at this.

  2. Dick Rossman

    I agree with you Heidi. This is a great tool for hard product manufacturers but I don’t see the relevance to the printing industry. It’s unfortunate that the process uses the word ‘printing’.

  3. Abby

    I believe “3D printing” is technically called holography. It actually uses a laser to make very small cuts in to thin metalized film and those cuts refract light making the image look 3D. Printers can then print color over the hologram to make the 3D image more complete or to make the 3D image apart of a larger image. The process is very popular and often used in package, such as DVD or cosmetic packages. For examples see “The Incredibles” , “Twiglight”, Apple’s itunes gift cards, Beyonce’s perfume. The leader in the Holographic industry is Hazen Paper Company in Holyoke, MA.

  4. Al Schmidutz

    It’s certainly not “printing” it only uses the print dialog features to create the output. However, the printing industry is really “manufacturing”, so to me the output of manufacturing could be collateral, books or even a custom object.

    Given the growing availability and relatively low-cost 3D rapid prototype devices, it’s more likely that 3D printing will find it’s way to the consumer rather than an opportunity to build a service around.

    However, this shouldn’t prevent an industry like the printing industry to innovate around this technology. Traditionally, those who work with “file-types” in the printing industry are generally experts at taking files of all kinds and producing output from which the file wasn’t prepared to exact spec. A lot of manipulation is typically required to ‘get it right’ and I suspect that the Rapid-Prototype opportunity will present the same challenges in the future. So, who is best to handle customer files that aren’t necessarily prepped appropriately for output?

    There may not be relevance to “printing” but there is when you want the output to be correct.

  5. Nancy Scott

    Bingo! I’ve had the same thought, Heidi, and — as always — you’ve said it well: different process, different markets.

  6. Alan Robertson

    “3D plotter” perhaps is a better description. I wouldn’t classify it as printing per se but I can see the similarities with inkjet. However I can also see similarities with injection moulding – it’s a bit of a hybrid really.

    I’m not entirely certain where the market lies with 3D “printing” either. What the public imagine is breaking a knob of the toaster (or something similar), turning up at the shop, 3D scanning it and then “print” it quickly and cheaply. In reality it can only do plastic, isn’t that strong with shear forces, is limited with colour, is expensive to produce and very slow compared with injection moulding.

    One off prototypes and bespoke designs (false teeth) etc. seem to be its strong points. There always seems to be a fiddly 3D scan that requires operator intervention to fix. Not to mention fixing post production errors by smoothing off excess moulding.

    I’m sure there is a market for it but it’s not the Star Trek replicator that most people imagine it to be…. Still give enough time and who knows!

  7. Peter

    I see your point but it is not a big deal for me. After all, doesn’t “traditional printing” have vastly different processes and markets?

  8. Patrick Henry

    A printer I spoke with recently about this subject said to me, “Who cares if it is or if it isn’t ‘printing’? As long as it gets people thinking about printing, it’s a good thing.”

    I think I see his point, and I think I agree with it.

  9. Paul White

    Printing as we know it is a subset of the Manufacturing SIC code 2752. I don’t have a problem calling 3D “printing”, as the 3D technology is an additive process in much the same way as ink jet printing technology is additive. Certainly the “inks” and substrates are specialized and different, and so too are the inks and substrates for our own, traditional brand of printing.

    I think the larger question is whether or not present day printers will see this as a business opportunity and add this technology to their product offerings. Most of the ink jet hardware vendors at PRINT-13 have investigated 3D printers, but none has any in their immediate pipeline.

    As the transition from offset to digital printing has evolved over many years, this will also be the process for considering 3D printing as a viable offering. Just as today’s printing business is divided into vertical market segments, entrepreneurs venturing into 3D printing will also be specializing in specific markets and niches, before branching out.

  10. Heidi Tolliver-Walker Post author

    Do we know of any printers who have purchased 3D printers and what their experiences are? Certainly someone in this market must have tried a hand at this technology and tried to incorporate 3D products into their existing product mix. Anyone know of anyone doing this?

  11. Rich Czarnecki

    The more accepted term is “additive manufacturing”.

  12. Pete Basiliere

    Hello, everyone,

    The original premise of this thread targets only one 3D printing technology, material extrusion. Even then, the process does not involve “drips” but the extrusion of plastics and other materials (even chocolate) that phase-change from a solid to semi-solid to solid when heated and extruded.

    In fact, the ASTM lists a total of seven 3D printing technologies.


    Does the term “3D printing” accurately describe the technologies? No, although arguably material jetting and binder jetting are close to digital 2D printing.

    Does “additive manufacturing” (which is what the ASTM categorizes the technologies as) accurately describe the technologies? No, it describes their _use_ by enterprises.

    But not consumer use.

    According to industry consultant Terry Wohlers, the Chinese do not use the term additive manufacturing at all. They call it 3D printing. Does this justify the name?

    No, but bear in mind the Chinese have major investments in 3D printing technology underway at the national, provincial, city, university and business levels.

    Whether you think any government should be pouring money into any technology research, the Chinese government’s involvement in the first three trump US government support for 3D printing.

    More 2D printers are sold worldwide in two days than have been sold by the “additive manufacturing/3D printing” industry in 30 years. This is a 30 year old nascent market – now there’s an oxymoron – so I am not surprised if there are no printing companies with a 3D printer.

    For now.

    To answer Heidi’s question, I am aware of a major paper and packaging company that has invested in 3D printing technology. Another firm that you may likely know, Unisource, uses Mcor’s paper lamination 3D printing technology in its packaging development work.

    So, if by “printers” we include companies that are involved in packaging then the answer is “yes.”

    The more relevant question, in my mind, is: Are printing company executives buying a device in order to not only learn about the 3D printing ecosystem of hardware, software and supplies – and the opportunities 3D printing offers them?

    I submit that they need to. Now.

    p.s. Several manufacturers of digital 2D printing technology are either OEM suppliers to 3D printer manufacturers and/or have intellectual property and patents related to 3D printing. And one displayed a 3D printer at the pinnacle of 2D printing trade shows, drupa.

    p.p.s. Thanks for reading this far!

  13. mark Stegman

    When I went to the first presentaion on “3D printing” about 18 months ago I was intrigued. One of the first points the presenter made was on the origin of the term. According to him it was coined by a child in repsonse to an adult explaining what additive manufacturing was. “OH! It’s just like 3D printing!?”

    The subject was fascintaing and the applications have the potential to change the landscape of the manufacturing industry, of which Printing and Graphic Arts is a part. Printing is an industry under pressure as wel all know and they were keen to pick up on the use of term. Some might interpret this as ‘grasping at straws’ as the connection to printing is slim to say the least. However, the flip side of the argument is that printing has to look at ways of re-inventing itself and become more integrated with other parts of the production process. They need to think of themselves as manufactures that are integrated with advertising and marketing and whoever else is involved. The ‘old’ printing industry let the digital printers ‘steal’ markets from under the noses of the small offset community. Why not fight back? Just don’t get hung up on semantics and ‘printing’. It’s all part of the manufacturing process and IT doesn’t exist in isolation any more.

    The bigger picture has more profound effects for the manufacturing process in general. It might be slow at the moment but you can manufacture mutliple units in multiple places using the same file simultaneously anywhere there is an internet connection! This will have more signisfaicant implications that what part of the manufacturing industry has control over the process.

  14. Kate Dunn

    The question is “What opportunities does the technology create for a business?” not whether it’s printing or not. Today, printers have added video production capabilities and are making money at that – not printing. Printers have added telemarketing centers also not printing. If the printing company understands that what they manufacture today has these objectives – educate someone about something, entertain, support a transaction like a form for instance, or sell something than the business will be open to how what is produced on the 3D device supports helping a client educate, entertain, transact with or sell something to their audience. I see opportunity, not a device.

  15. Barry Walsh

    Correct or not, let’s welcome anyone in the mainstream press mentioning the word printing with any kind of enthusiasm. Yes, print is going through some painful changes to put it mildly, but is far from being on it’s deathbed.

    Many people have asked me if Scodix is 3D printing. One of our flagship customers, Acculink in Greenville, North Carolina has actually and successfully branded their Scodix print “3DUV.”

    One of our founders, Kobi Bar, came from NUR, which touched on 3D in several ways. Dror Danai and Yaron Hermeche came from Objet, a leading company in what the mainstream press is calling 3D Printing. Add this experience to the hundreds of years of traditional Graphic Arts experience our 75 employees have…and you get Scodix Digital Enhancement.

    What Scodix is doing is taking some ideas from this industry, and applying it to print on a traditional substrate, adding value and buzz to what we all can agree is “Print”. Scodix inkjets a billion nanodroplets of UV curable polymer per second onto a (cmyk preprinted) moving sheet, droplets that build up to 70, 100 or 250 microns … adding a tightly registered 3rd Dimension to the sheet. A 3rd Dimension that can produce digital, readable Braille.

    Is it 3D? I say yes.

  16. Francis Grogan

    My thought exactly. I don’t have a problem with 3D printing being called printing though. It is after all developed from the same technology of inkjet heads. What seems strange to me as that the “guru’s” and shouters in the commercial print industry keep sharing information on 3d printing (along with every other article they find that contains the word print) as if it’s relevant to their market and audience.

    I’m quite interested in 3D printing and contrary to some opinions I think it will have a large part to play in years to come. Yes it’s still rather expensive right now but prices will drop and it will begin to fulfill its potential. We live in a “now generation” where consumers cant get things fast enough. People may often be willing to pay a premium to be able to download and print an item they need or want just to get it sooner. Not to mention the potential for larger scale construction.

    So in summary;
    Interesting – yes
    revolutionary – yes
    commercial printing – no

  17. Paul J Gardner

    Kate: Love it: “I see opportunity, not a device.”

    Barry: Scodix is clearly one variation of 3D printing. So, how thick does a layer of ink/image/pigment/coating/material have to be, before it’s no longer considered printing.

    Francis: For decades we’ve embossed, folded, cut, stamped, coated, grommeted, stapled and thermographed paper (and other substrates) to achieve dimension and relief, and we’ve called it Printing… Why, now that we can achieve relief that’s a millimeter or two thicker than in the past, are these techniques not part of Commercial Printing?

  18. Bryan Yeager

    Glad to see that not everyone is getting hung up with the semantics of the technology and focusing on the opportunity it presents.

    One news item that seems to have been overlooked is that the UPS Store is starting to roll out 3D printing services at its retail locations, starting in California (check out the video here and a great Forbes article here). Staples is testing 3D printing at some of its locations abroad. Braintree Printing in MA is also experimenting heavily with 3D printing, as reported by Ron Gilboa from InfoTrends. Even major brands like Coke and VW are using 3D printing in their marketing efforts, according to this AdAge article.

    Plus, there are a growing number of so-called “web-to-3D-print” services/marketplaces out there that connect 3D printer owners with people who want to sell 3D printed products and those that want to buy them, such as Shapeways, Sculpteo, and Ponoko.

    There is definitely a lot of opportunity here for print providers that are not afraid to step out of their comfort zone, experiment, and try to develop new business opportunities from 3D printing–and it makes more sense (to me) than trying to transform into a marketing agency.

  19. Andrew Copley

    “It’s great to see such an energetic discussion around 3D printing. Clearly, people are passionate about how it will affect the printing industry’s future. I believe that 3D printing can provide a legitimate opportunity for the industry and graphic communications providers. A number of printers began offering the service recently, and a section of the Future of Print Pavilion at PRINT 13 was dedicated to it. Indeed Paul, 3D printing’s current state has much in common with where digital printing was 15 to 20 years ago and there are barriers to its success. One challenge: The 3D printing business is unlikely to share much of the traditional print customer base, focusing more on product engineers working up prototypes than on marketers and print buyers. That noted, the workflows follow similar patterns, so some core commercial printing competencies do apply. And in a world where overall print volumes are declining, leveraging core competencies to establish a new business in an adjacent industry with significant upside may be a good strategy for some graphic communications providers. As many have noted below, it is important to take advantage of the opportunities that 3D printing provides.”

  20. Tim Hennings

    I see why you want to categorize 3D printing as manufacturing. However, printing ink on paper is one step in manufacturing a publication. This is especially clear with our business model at Our customers load data and images, press some buttons, and out comes ready-to-print catalogs. Isn’t that a manufacturing process?

  21. Heath Cajandig

    The opportunity that the current technology presents is like being a first mover to get an inkjet printer and offering it to consumers. It seems magical because something is created additively but it is hardly a serious business unless you are the one selling the consumables.

    At scale, custom manufacturing or prototyping is nothing new and it continues to evolve with expertise and know-how that doesn’t overlap with the print industry.

    In my opinion this doesn’t get people to think about printing, marks on paper, in a way that reinforces print as a communication tool.

  22. Manny

    The word printing is turned out to be a jargon. Later, printing is turned out to be nothing but inking on the paper. Actually, 3D printing still makes sense..

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