Why 3D printing's vast potential has produced minimal channel involvement

Emphasis on product development overlooks solution providers

Gmax 3D printed 3D printer overview

We should start with some definitions: 3D printing, less commonly known as additive manufacturing, is a process to make things in layers using plastic, metal or resin.

Those who immerse themselves in the technology believe it has the potential to turn manufacturing on its head because it plays havoc with the traditional supply chain, shortens product development and removes costs.

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Even with all its change-the-world promise, 3D printing still needs to clean up some problems, namely the process is slow, expensive and has a steep learning curve.

Those obstacles are already being addressed if not hurdled in the near term. For example, HP’s 3D printers use thermal inkjet arrays and multiple liquid agents in a process called Multi Jet Fusion, said to be 10 times faster than today’s standard machines. And Carbon’s speedy Continuous Liquid Interface Production 3D printing technology is referred to by some as a game changer.

Now consider, if you will, some 3D printing market statistics: Worldwide demand for 3D printers, materials, parts and services is expected to push the segment’s value nearly four-fold to $12 billion by 2025, according to 2014 Lux Research, a Boston-based market intelligence firm.

Of that $12 billion, printers will account for about $3.2 billion, formulated materials about $2 billion and $7 billion will come from parts production, according to Anthony Vicari, a Lux lead analyst.

“Even though the field is just getting started, it’s difficult to find an industry today not using 3D printing for prototyping,” says Vicari. “The vast majority [of 3D printing] is in prototyping, molds and tooling. We think that will still be the case 10 years from now.”

By Lux’s count, venture capital firms in about 60 transactions pumped $250 million into 3D printing companies last year, about 40 percent of which was directed at high-flying Redwood, CA-based Carbon, the research house said in a recent podcast covering the 3D printing market so far this year. .

“The big opportunities are less on the systems and the low-cost market than they are on improving the capabilities of what we can do with 3D printing today,” says Vicari.

Another market projection from a Consumer Technology Association and UPS study, entitled 3D Printing: The Next Revolution in Industrial Manufacturing and using forecasts from 3D market watcher Wohlers Associates, is more optimistic, pegging worldwide total 3D printing at $21 billion by 2020, 40 percent of which will come from consumer electronics and auto makers.

By nearly every measure, it’s clear that 3D printing is headed for a deep imprint both technologically and commercially.

Where’s the channel?

That makes it all the more curious that pretty much the entire 3D printing market as currently shaped, could, and probably will, bypass collaborations with channel partners – including VARs, solution providers and, quite possibly, SIs – at least at the higher-end industrial level.

Initial solution provider opportunities for 3D printing may belong to MSPs, says West McDonald, VP of business development at Print Audit, a 17-year-old Calgary, Alberta-based RMM provider.

“What we’ve all discovered is that 3D printing should be called ‘prototyping’ or ‘micro manufacturing’,” he says.

“As an MSP, there’s room for adding 3D printing to your portfolio but it hasn’t yet caught up to remote monitoring or even seen the need for it – there’s no standardized way to track information, materials or the health of the unit,” says McDonald. “It’s surprising, but true.”

The coming connected-device tidal wave, otherwise known as the Internet of Things, may help prod 3D printing toward RMM, notes McDonald, with internet-facing systems tied to the network and remote management of assets.

“In order for the 3D world to move like any other OEM, selling direct isn’t enough,” he says. “It’s not a general market opportunity, but there will be space for MSPs focused on specific verticals and with SMBs.”

Another turn in the channel’s direction is a potential tectonic shift in how 3D printing is delivered. For example, Carbon’s CLIP-based M1 3D printer aimed at enterprise customers will be delivered as a service via a subscription-based model, the first ever for the industry, with more certain to follow.

We all know that where’s there’s recurring revenue models, there are also solution providers.

The SMB opportunity

With 3D printing startup manufacturers popping up in increasing numbers, targeted SMBs will likely exert more of an influence on product development, as well as offer a beachhead for MSPs to tiptoe into the market.

“Tinkerers and hobbyists were the first people excited about 3D printing,” says Gordon LaPlante, co-founder of gCreate, a Brooklyn, NY-based 3D printing startup.

“Our first product was a kit with people buying the parts and assembling it themselves,” he notes. “A big move for us was designing, building and assembling the products in-house as a manufacturer, controlling the process including sales. That changed our market from hobbyists to small enterprises and SMBs. Now others are doing the same thing.”

While a major portion of the hoopla surrounding 3D printing comes from the consumer side – where a unit once selling for $5,000 now can be had for under $500 – gCreate’s customer sweetspot is “people using it in their shop on a daily basis”, says LaPlante.

“Where the market is going has been a great influence on us. There’s a shift toward people realizing what 3D printing is used for – in our world, SMBs use it as an inexpensive prototyping tool to test parts before going to larger production,” he points out.

That’s potentially a good setup for neophyte 3D printing channel partners, a way to open doors by offering tech support, consulting and planning, a point not lost on LaPlante.

He says he’s yet to engage with the channel, but is open to doing so in some capacity, particularly as gCreate’s volume increases. He’s even been approached by a few interested solution providers.

“We’re open to [channel] partnerships,” he says. “We’ve almost hit critical mass and we’re at the point now where solution providers can help us.”

The wider view

3D printing’s greatest influence may reside in altering how we think about the traditional manufacturing process, according to John Hornick, author of 3D Printing Will Rock the World, and a partner in the Washington, DC-based Finnegan, Henderson law firm.

“3D printing does not fit into the traditional manufacturing mindset or paradigm,” says Hornick.

Much of the mind-boggling prompted by 3D technology results from the evolving and newly blurring lines between customers and manufacturers, says Hornick, sketching an example of a business who’d previously bought engines from a manufacturer but used 3D printing to make replacement parts on its own, rather than returning to the OEM source.

“Companies think of intellectual property as the fruit of human creativity,” notes Hornick. “But with 3D printing, manufacturers might not know what to do when a customer uses it to replace a worn part. Some will see it as an infringement on their intellectual property and fight back. Some may seek patents or legislation or come up with a new business model.”

The fact is, no one knows what will happen. What we do know is that 3D printing’s strengths lie in making customized and one-of-a-kind products at no increased incremental costs. That’s revolutionary all on its own.

“All these things together improve the efficiency of making things where they’re needed,” says Hornick. “That globally makes the supply chain change. Now anyone can make parts that compete with the big guys.”

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