Funny story. Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to chat via LinkedIn with a man in the UK who was entertaining the idea of opening a 3D print shop. Last week I posted his story and shared it on Twitter. He was going to the 3D Printing Show and I mentioned it in my post. A little later I received a tweet that said, “We’ll be there too, but we have an actual print shop you can visit.” Clearly people I had to meet.
This week I had an opportunity to meet on Skype with Christiane Fimpel and Philipp Binkert, the co-founders of 3D-Model.ch. 3D-Model.ch is located in Zurich, Switzerland and is something of a one-stop shop for all things 3D. While I didn’t get to visit in person, I did get to talk shop with two innovative entrepreneurs who are powering the next industrial revolution.
More than just a 3D print shop, 3D-Model.ch has four pillars in its business strategy. The company does provide 3D printing and other services including design, file management, laser cutting, and finishing, but also an authorized reseller for 3D Systems and Bits From Bytes, two formidable names in 3D printing equipment. Beyond products, the other two pillars in 3D-Model.ch’s strategy are services, including education for consumers, and consulting services for business clients.
Christiane and Philipp have complimentary skill sets. Christiane has a marketing background and a degree in Communications. She’s 3D-Model.ch’s “Idea Accelerator.” Philipp worked in the architectural field and is the shop’s “Maker.” They’re both very likeable and both speak English well (lucky for me). We spent about an hour talking about the future of 3D printing and what’s involved in running a 3D print shop today. Here are some of my observations:
WELCOME BACK TO FILE HELL
Even though 3D modeling has gotten a lot easier, it’s still complicated software. CAD files are created in a variety of different packages including commercial platforms like Autodesk and free alternatives like Blender and Google Sketchup 3D. Even the process of preparing files for print can be a bit daunting. For example, take a look at the File Prep Tutorial Shapeways has for Blender users. Once the files are created and sent, they must be reviewed again by the shop to ensure they will print correctly, and unlike traditional print, in 3D printing there is no “pre-flight” software. With a few exceptions they must be opened and manually reviewed.
The key takeaway for me was this – if you want to be successful in 3D printing you need to plan to spend time educating customers so you can spend less time quality checking the files you receive. These are areas where 3D-Model.ch invests considerable resources.
THE WEB TAKES A BACK SEAT
While Shapeways, Cubify.com and others are operating 3D web-to-print portals, 3D-Model.ch does not yet offer the service. It’s on the radar screen, but today they receive most of their jobs via email, FTP or on removable media. File sizes aren’t as big as I expected (typically under 150MB) so they’re relatively easy to move. Maybe this is a case where being local is more important than selling online? People can ask questions and shop for home printers while dropping off projects.
3D-Model.ch has five 3D print devices on its production floor. As they are a dealer for 3D Systems, it’s no surprise who supplies their equipment. They print with a variety of substrates including ABS, PLA, resin, and ceramic. They do not print metal. They can print up to a maximum size of 200x250x200mm (about 8x10x8”), but larger items can be printed in pieces and assembled after. Most of the objects they produce are custom one-offs, but they have done some small runs of individual items and larger quantities of items that were serialized.
FINISHING AND DECORATION
Some substrates are available in multiple colors, but each item can only be printed in one of the available colors. 3D-Model.ch does offer galvanizing, but does not provide other decorative services like powder coating, chroming, etc. To get a better feel for the process and what’s involved in finishing, check out this video of 3D-Model.ch creating the Number One History Award trophy that was recently presented to Roger Federer.
A lot of work that went into laser-cutting, painting and finishing that project. It seems conceivable to me that an entire industry will develop around the application of decoration, artwork and coatings on 3D objects. Only a matter of time.
48 hours is the standard turn time for most projects at 3D-Model.ch. Orders come mostly from Swiss customers. It’s a local business, supporting local customers. It’s the beginning of what Philipp and Christiane see as “The Next Industrial Revolution.” The idea that people manufacture what they need, in their home or community, when they need it, on demand. It’s an idea that’s catching on. 3D print shops have started in several communities from Zurich to Poultney, Vermont.
The team at 3D-Model.ch plans to expand their business to other locations in Europe. During the conversation Christiane even mentioned franchising, which could prove a very effective means for growth. It doesn’t seem that far-fetched to think there will be chains of 3D print shops soon. If someone were to franchise they could do well learning and applying the 3D-Model.ch “model.”
From Christiane’s view, “3D-Model.ch is in a unique position to help power the next industrial revolution. We sell the devices that will help consumers manufacture at home, we offer a production shop for complex projects, and we provide education to help our customers become skilled “makers.”
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