In the past year, 3D printing has been gaining more attention in the high tech industry. In May 2010, Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ)began shipping its Designjet 3D printers in Europe. Then at this year’s Cisco Live conference in Las Vegas, the company’s chief futurist Dave Evans also touted 3D printing as one of the upcoming significant technologies of the next 10 years. Whether it will become a significant part of the channel among traditional resellers is still up for discussion.
Users typically create their 3D models using computer-aided design (CAD) software then use 3D printers, or additive manufacturing, to physically “print” the products. The technology is mainly aimed at industries that use models and prototyping, such as architecture, but some industry professionals, including Cisco Systems Inc.’s Evans, have hinted at potential for 3D printing in medicine. Eventually, he argued, people will be able to print spare parts for their household items. Right now, the general idea is for businesses to have prototypes and models built more quickly and with less cost involved.
Who buys it?
While he doesn’t formally track the 3D printing market, IDC analyst Evan Hardie has seen more talk about the technology through social media and even in mainstream news. The technology, though, is still a long way from becoming as common as traditional printing within households, he said. “It’s probably something that’s on the horizon,” he said, but not in the next couple of years. “Right now, it’s do-it-yourself-er enthusiasts that are really dabbling in it.” Some companies have begun offering personal 3D printers and design software packages for under $2000.
The demand for 3D printers is greater than what one might imagine, but it’s still a niche market that demands high expertise from its resellers. Stratasys Inc. is one company that sells 3D printers through the channel, with products ranging from $14,000 to half a million dollars. “It has become more and more affordable,” said Mary Stanley, product manager for Stratasys’ Dimension 3D printers. “The vision would be that theoretically, you could have one in your own home.”
“It’s really very, very diverse relative to industries,” she added. Currently there is a demand from a consumer hobbyist market along with various industries. “It’s very diverse,” agreed James Janeteas, president of Cimetrix Solutions, a Dimension printer reseller. “That’s the nice thing about it.” Cimetrix has been selling 3D printers for about 11 years and has more than 500 customers. It generates revenue from consumables and services associated with its install base and Janeteas said he experiences year over year growth of between 30 and 40 per cent.
“There is however another major market for us, which is the educational marketplace,” Stanley added. “They (schools) don’t necessarily want an inexpensive product,” Janeteas said. Rather, they want a system in place for their students to capitalize on industry-standard technology.
HP has been selling its Designjet 3D printers in the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany and Spain since May 2010. The printers are manufactured by Stratasys, but branded under HP. HP is currently testing the market for 3D printers in Europe with between five and 10 partners in each of the countries, according to company spokesperson Jill Peters.
It developed its channel there from former Stratasys partners and HP partners who wanted to tryout the market, according to Peters. The five countries were chosen in part because partners there had the necessary services skill-set to help deliver the technology. The company is actively recruiting more partners within Europe as well, but Peters made it clear that HP is not looking to get into the hobbyist or consumer market.
Selling 3D printing
“Awareness certainly is changing,” Janeteas said. “We’re still far from it being in a market where you may be familiar with traditional paper printers.” 3D printing, though, is vastly different from reselling traditional printers, where it’s more of a fulfillment market, he said. “That industry is very much a pull type of industry,” he said, where customers know what they need.
“There’s just no way that someone’s going to go to a Future Shop or a Best Buy and buy one of these,” he said. The capabilities would simply be too limited, so the extra cost is worth it to businesses and educational institutions looking to capitalize on the technology. “For someone just to say ‘I’m going to start selling this stuff,’ you’re going to hit a wall,”
In contrast, Janeteas still goes to events where two thirds of an audience of engineers still aren’t familiar with the potential behind the technology. “You would think that these individuals would know how to leverage it,” he said. “It’s saddening but at the same time it’s exciting.”
“It’s very different. A lot of people (partners) think they’re going to get in on it,” he said. The traditional VAR market won’t do as well, he argued. “They’re struggling to get a product that’s affordable and reliable to the market,” he said. Naturally, though, the quality has to remain. “Just because it’s less expensive, it doesn’t mean more people are going to buy it or that it will increase sales,” he said. “You have to actively find customers,” he said. “You have to knock on doors. You have to participate in events.”