Niche specialists can look forward to a solid future

By Simon Eccles, Monday 09 March 2015

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In the 12 months since PrintWeek first took a serious look at the prospects for 3D printing, the market has both evolved and stayed pretty much the same.

3d-hobs-architectura

The evolution has largely come from the fields of engineering and medical developers, who are finding ever more exciting things to print, meanwhile two major suppliers from the 2D print world are preparing to enter the market. What hasn’t developed is the much-hyped consumer market, which in reality is stuck in a hobbyist’s rut.

Last year, market research business Gartner forecast that worldwide spending on 3D printing would rise from around £1bn in 2015 to around £8.6bn in 2018. “Consumer adoption will be outpaced by business and medical applications that have more compelling use cases in the short term,” its report concluded. 

“Consumer 3D printing is around five to 10 years away from mainstream adoption,” says Pete Basiliere, research vice-president at Gartner. “Hype around home use obfuscates the reality that 3D printing involves a complex ecosystem of software, hardware and materials – it’s just not as simple as hitting print on a conventional 2D printer.”

Engineering companies have used 3D printing for rapid prototyping for many years. This is now progressing into functional, very short-run specialist components such as air ducts for racing cars. NASA has been 3D metal printing and test-firing ever more complex rocket engine parts in recent years, while last month Melbourne’s Monash University showed a pair of complete jet engines made from printed metal parts. 

Every other week comes a story of medical history being made by printing body parts to aid restorative surgery. 3D printing is also used for film props and by museums to replicate actual artefacts or to visualise extinct beasties. 

Closer to home, architectural consultancies use 3D printing to show clients their concepts for buildings or interiors, and this is where 2D printers are mainly getting into the market so far – architects already use conventional print services for brochures and plan printing. 

Scott Schiller, worldwide business director for 3D printing at HP, says: “The 3D printed parts industry is still developing and we expect some commercial printers to invest in 3D printing, especially those that have solid digital experience. However, PSPs should not underestimate the differences between selling 2D print and 3D printed parts; although they can produce tangible ‘3D’ objects today such as books, they need to make the leap from the 2D printing market to understanding the new products possible, business opportunities and challenges in 3D printing.

“With this in mind, there are two likely business models: service providers offering web-based ordering systems targeted at consumers or prosumers, and the other with service bureaux targeting specific vertical applications that require higher degrees of specialisation. The latter will probably be the biggest barrier to entry for commercial printers.”

3D print services

Hobs Studios is the largest UK crossover between conventional 2D print and 3D. It was formed as a spin-off from Hobs Reprographic, a conventional print bureau based in Liverpool. There are Hobs Studios in Manchester and London, with plans to open two more to serve the South West and Scotland this year, says Paul Ryan, group marketing lead. Hobs Studios also claims to be the UK’s largest reseller of 3D Systems’ range of printers and offers consultancy, training and project-based placements of staff and equipment in clients’ studios. 

“A lot of the 2D clients we have are in construction and we do bids and tender work for them. So offering the 3D services is still linked in with that,” says Ryan. 

Hobs Studios worked with the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) on its current exhibition, ‘3D: Printing the Future’, which runs until 19 April. 

“We printed a large proportion, though not all of what’s in there,” Ryan explains. “We’ve also ‘canned’ a few famous people, such as Bez from Happy Mondays, James May from Top Gear and, surprisingly, a lot of pets too.”

ABC Imaging in Farringdon, London, is another 2D print bureau that’s moved into 3D production, with a 3D Systems ProJet 660 Pro supplied by LGS. “Most of our printing is conventional; we have six Canon printers and some flatbeds,” says business development manager Lee McCloud. “We do a lot of pitch work for architectural companies. We were getting enquiries about 3D and rather than farm it out we thought we’d bite the bullet and get our own. 

“We looked about and found the ProJet. It’s ideal for what we wanted to do, as it has a wide range of what you can do, from figurines to architectural models. We’ve had it six months and it took a while to take off, but in the past two or three months we’ve seen a difference, with more enquiries and people asking for different things too.”

What’s on the market?

Assuming you want to try a 3D printer, what are your options? There’s any number of entry-level printers, from less than £1,000 up to £2,000. We’re only listing two here, but a search on Google or Amazon will show a wider choice. They’re aimed at hobbyists and learners but commercial printers might use one as a low-risk way to do some initial learning. Most use fused deposition, meaning filaments of plastic on a roll that is melted and extruded from nozzles on a moving head.  

Makerbot

This company pioneered affordable desktop fused deposition 3D printers for under £2,000. The much larger Stratasy bought it out last year. Current versions start with the £999 Replicator Mini (for objects up to 100x100x125mm); although the £2,199 Replicator (a fifth-generation model for objects up to 252x199x150mm) is the firm’s flagship device. 

Formlabs

A rare exception to fused deposition printing at the entry level is the Formlabs Form1+, a £2,000 printer that uses the stereolithography process, a process in which a UV laser is used to harden liquid photopolymer. It can make objects of any size up to 125x125x165mm and the resolution is better than equivalently priced filament types. 

Pro-grade printers tend to offer much greater build volumes than the hobbyist models, although they’re still slow by 2D press terms. The large volume means that many small items can be printed at once, boosting throughput. 

The main additive processes include stereolithography (laser hardening of liquid photopolymer), multi-jet (inkjet deposition), powder bed (inkjet printed resin and ink to bind a plaster powder), and sintering (laser heat fusion of powdered plastic or metal). Subtractive processes carve solid wood, resin or metal down to a shape using computer-controlled milling machines. 

3D Systems

US based 3D Systems (3DS) was founded by Chuck Hill, who developed the first 3D stereolithography printer in 1986. In 2012 it acquired Z Corp, a maker of powder bed colour inkjet printers and followed this in 2013 by buying a Xerox factory in Oregon that already made printheads for 3D Systems ‘multi-jet’ devices. 

Today it lists more than 30 models in three main additive processes (stereolithography, powder bed and multi-jet). These range from £750 desktop Cube models aimed at hobbyists, through to big industrial devices costing around £650,000. Full-colour models range from about £15,000 to £75,000.

Canon

Announcing its intention to get into 3D just last month, Canon is initially being quite cautious. It will sell and support the established range of kit from 3D Systems. 

Duncan Smith, Wide Format Print Group director at Canon UK and Ireland, says that: “We’ll initially offer the printers to our wide-format Technical Document Systems (TDS) customers in architecture, manufacturing and engineering. These are the markets we believe 3D printing can
add most value and to which we’ll be able to offer leasing and financing options for the printers. “

HP

Currently the elephant in the room during any consideration of 3D printing. You won’t be able to buy anything before 2016, but HP’s claims in the past year that it is about to revolutionise the 3D market have been affecting purchasing decisions and competitors’ share prices.

HP calls its technology Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) and says that it based on its existing thermal inkjet technology. It’s predicting speeds that are 10 times faster than
current technologies, with “strength, accuracy, resiliency and finish for an overall product that is not currently possible at the speed and price HP is planning to deliver to market.”

It says MJF uses a “unique multi-chemistry process, including a fusing agent that is selectively applied where the particles will fuse together, as well as a detailing agent that is selectively applied where the fusing action needs to be reduced or amplified.”

Full colour production will be released as a future development, but there is no intention of producing entry-level consumer/hobbyist models. 

MCor

The nearest thing to ‘real’ printing in 3D, MCor uses a technique of inkjet printing sheets of paper and laminating them together with digitally printed glue. The waste is removed after each layer is applied, building up coloured 3D shapes. MCor claims to be the only 3D manufacturer to use ICC colour profiles, though it is possible to colour-calibrate the other full-colour technologies. 

Stratasys

Founded in 1989, Stratasys is the main competitor to 3D Systems and has a similar range of kit, from home use up to industrial production level. 

In 2012 Stratasys merged with Israeli firm Objet. Objet printers use Xaar inkjet heads to print layers of UV-cured polymer. Its PolyJet technology can mix different hardnesses, and appearances (coloured or transparent) on same model. Last year it announced a CMY colour version, the Objet500 Connex3.

Last year Stratasys bought MakerBot, which it has retained as a separately marketed brand. 

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