How 3D Printing Could Save an Industry

Yesterday I read a piece from Marc Lefton in AG Beat, entitled “How to Take Advantage of Print Media While They Still Exist.” I was struck by a number of thoughts. First, I thought how inflamatory the title would have been even a couple of years ago. Second, as I read into it, found myself questioning Mr. Lefton’s assertion that businesses can get a better rate of return by advertising in local newspapers than online – been there tried that, and didn’t like the result.

The biggest chord struck for me in the article though, was his explanation of the “Newspaper Business Plan.” It imagines someone pitching the concept and current process of publishing and distributing a newspaper to venture capital.

“Our plan is to take yesterday’s news, quickly create a beautiful “layout” with computer software and designers working day and night, then print millions of copies overnight in a huge printing plant using millions of dollars in equipment. We’ll then send these “newspapers” to distribution points all around the city. From there, we will utilize an army thirteen-year-old boys on bicycles who will distribute the newspapers door to door in their neighborhood after school in exchange for gratuities from our customers so they can go buy Topps baseball cards, Silly String, and Now-N-Laters. And we’ll support the whole thing with advertising. We think printing last week’s help wanted ads and apartment listings will be a surefire revenue driver!”

Don’t to forget yesterday’s sports box scores and winning lottery numbers, right?

Then I started thinking, how would this script look in another scenario? Maybe statement billing?

“Our plan is to take last month’s customer data, risk its security by moving it to a third party, print millions of copies, each with personalized data. We’ll sort and insert matching pieces in envelopes and we’ll send these statements, (via USPS) to distribution points around the country. From there we’ll use an army of delivery people to deliver the correct statement to each customer. And we’ll support the whole thing through higher transaction fees. We’ll include an extra $.50 in fees for what they could print at home for $.25, if they print them at all.”

And so on, and so on, and so on. Print is dying. It’s no longer a matter of if, but when.

Not ready to drink the kool-aid? Consider this from the world of print advertising. Earlier this year one company, Google, made more in online ad revenue ($20.2 BILLION) than the entire print media advertising industry ($19.2 Billion). Not enough? In 2012 the commercial print industry is forecast to product $78 billion in revenue, down 21.6% from its all-time peak in 2000. Want more? Print-related employment in the USA was over 800,000 people back in 2000. In 2012, it is estimated the industry employs approximately 460,000 – nearly half of the 2000 figure.

So how can printers survive? Clearly the adoption of digital technologies has helped. For many “traditional” printers, digital printing now accounts for a significant portion of their revenues. While digital printing has benefits (on demand manufacturing, personalization, and distribute-then-print, among others) the end product is still analog. Software companies understand the inherent disadvantages of analog and will continue to build programs that replace the need for digital print applications like statement printing – just as they have with other traditional applications like newspapers.

How can printers avoid the eventual cliff? It’s estimated that 3D printing will be a $3.1 billion market by 2016. While that’s still nowhere near as big as 2D print, 3D is growing while 2D is fading. At some point in the future (maybe 2020?) the lines will intersect and the 3D printing industry will outpace 2D. Don’t think it could happen? Ask the newspaper and magazine industry if they ever thought the ad revenues produced by their entire industry could be topped by one single digital competitor. Does any other avenue for printers have the opportunity to be this disruptive?

3D print is already being offered online, in-store, and at home via desktop printing. Printing companies have facilities, people, processes and technology which can support a 3D printing workflow. It’s basically the same as digital printing:

File is Created >> File is submitted for Print >> Item is Printed >> Item is Finished

What Should Printers Do Now?

The first thing printers must do is to get educated. is committed to being a source for traditional printing companies interested in 3D printing. Other websites, blogs, groups, communities and forums are also available right now. The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is scheduled for January 8-11 in Las Vegas and seven different 3D printing equipment providers will be presenting. Much will be written about their offerings over the next few weeks.

The next thing a printer should do is take a look at the markets they serve today and decide if there are applications for 3D print. Since 3D print is being used in a wide range of markets from healthcare to manufacturing to museums, it’s likely there’s a fit. Once the markets, applications, and decision makers are identified, a printer should start training or hiring people to support its 3D initiative. With it’s team in place, printers should revisit their workflow processes and determine how they will facilitate 3D production. Finally the printer should make the choice to either outsource 3D production (in the near term at least) or take the leap on an equipment purchase.

Can Printers Make Money From 3D Now?

A printer that steps on the gas pedal now could generate significant revenue from 3D printing in 2013. Shapeways is opening a facility in NY that will have the capacity to create 5 million objects per year. At an average selling price of $30, that’s $150 Million in potential revenue. Shapeways estimates it can sell 2-3 million items. It needs partners to help it sell its excess capacity. The company has a reseller program and offers an application programming interface (API.) Reselling through Shapeways or another production source could help a printer share in the revenue while they build enough volume to bring equipment in house. Ironically that’s what Shapeways did. Prior to its recent investments, Shapeways outsourced much of its production to “contract partners.”

It’s also an opportunity to learn from Shapeways’ investments in R&D. According to Kegan Fisher, the company’s director of industrial engineering:

“There’s not too many companies that process hundreds of thousands of completely unique items and we’re really defining how you do that.”  “There’s a lot of trial and error, designing new systems. Tons of white-boarding obviously. All of our order processing and production technology is designed and developed in house. Some of which I had my hands in last fall. It’s pretty amazing to sit down and say, ‘Hey, we have this unique problem, in which there is no existing distribution production model to look to–let’s design a solution.”

To learn more about the market for 3D printing and how it might fit your traditional printing operation, CONTACT US today. We’re available to consult with your team, helping you plan and prepare for this exciting new business opportunity.


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