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Service in the 3rd dimension

Has the hype that surrounds 3D printing died a desperately expensive death, or is the 'as a service' model swooping in to its successful rescue?

Has 3D printing lost its mojo?

Towards the end of 2016, Forrester released a report entitled: The top emerging technologies to watch: 2017 To 2021. In this report the research firm said that while 3D printing has been sat on the emerging technology list for a few years now, it will not play a role in 'broadly helping firms win, serve and retain customers in the next five years'. So, they’ve now excluded it. 3D printing has even entered Gartner’s trough of disillusionment, further adding to the feeling that perhaps the three-dimensional print has lost its mojo.

What’s causing this so-called slump? Is it lack of adoption? Is it cost and availability? Actually, it’s all and none of these. A closer look at the Gartner hype cycle shows that while consumer 3D printing is slipping down the disillusionment slope, enterprise printing is seeing some serious shifts. It is instead evolving and becoming more about its immersive value and capability, especially as 4D printing becomes more advanced and accessible. That said, while 4D codable printed objects remain a fresh and shiny new hype for the cycle, '3D printing as a service' (3DaaS) is overcoming the challenges of cost and accessibility, quietly cementing itself as both viable and reliable.

“The hype around 3D printing may have died down a little and this is largely due to the cost of printing materials and printers,” says Philip Booysen, mechanical engineer, Resolution Circle. “Users need the right technical knowledge to operate them and use CAD to create the models and this requires time and training. For any business to simply up and use these machines is extremely expensive. Ours cost around R2-million and the materials alone are around R5 000 a kilogram. These expenses can be very hard to justify.”

However, it is this challenge which makes the 3DaaS concept such a strong proposition, especially in South Africa with dodgy exchange rates and high import duties. Organisations don’t need to invest in the technology to have their prototypes printed or solutions created, and they don’t need to go through the learning process either. Instead, the channel can provide them with the prints they need at a cost point they can afford.

Showing big spend

“While I don’t agree that there has been a decline in 3D printing, there has been a decline in the capital outlay, where organisations are purchasing machines,” says Bernhard Vogt, managing director, CAD House. “High-end machines are extremely expensive and most organisations would rather go to a service provider so they don’t have to keep this stock. Now they can just get their parts from a channel partner. And as we specialise in this, we can invest heavily in high-end equipment so we can service all types of market and demand.”

By focusing on 3DaaS, organisations such as CAD House can bring the costs down for customers. This again pushes up the use cases, allowing for organisations to explore the potential of 3D printing within their business models without waving an empty wallet. Vogt adds that customers have had more time to learn about the technology and are now making informed decisions around materials and types of print.

“In the past, 3D printing was seen as a solution for engineers doing prototypes,” he says. “This isn’t the case anymore. Different industries are seeing the benefits, such as architects, jewellers, dental protection manufacturers and dental surgery companies, consumer goods, art and even décor. The 3DaaS market is being driven by those who give customers a way of creating a superior product which isn’t available anywhere else.”

For the channel, investment into a focused 3DaaS arm can open a world of potential. Organisations wanting to differentiate themselves can take advantage of 3D printing’s mass customisation capabilities to create products tailored to consumer whim. Or they can develop prototypes and products which can offer the local market something not available anywhere else in the world. However, it’s an opportunity tinged with a hint of a warning.

Room for improvement

“Our experience is that the market is really small and will remain so until the quality of the printing, the ease of use and the pricing can be improved significantly,” says Keith Steward, managing director, MGFX Micro Graphics. “In reality, it’s the large enterprise that needs to push this technology through the trough of disillusionment, and they tend to only do so when it becomes financially viable. We tried and failed to add this onto our existing business – the attempts to get this technology working efficiently have been less than successful.”

The challenge is to ensure that not only is the printing technology of a high enough standard to deliver a superb finish, but that it’s cost-effective enough to remain appealing to the market. It’s a balance that remains hard to achieve, making it a complex opportunity rather than a quick win.

Like Mark Twain, the rumours of 3D printing’s death appear to have been greatly exaggerated. It’s still as strong a proposition as before, but instead of being in every home and business, it has evolved into a specialised solution which provides a service. And it is very likely that, as prices come down and accessibility increases, it will start expanding into all sorts of available nooks and crannies.

“Just look at the medical device market, already there's a lot of scope for work there,” says Vogt. “And we're also seeing an emerging trend of 3D selfies – people pop into a booth, get scanned, and out comes a relatively affordable 3D print. While the cost of these isn’t quite there yet, it is going to take off.”

Then the only question that remains is – where does one put a three-dimensional, life-sized print out of oneself? In the guest bathroom, perhaps...

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