Everybody remember the Formlabs Form 1? It’s the desktop 3D printer that raised nearly $3 million a couple of months ago on Kickstarter. Part of its allure was the quality of output it could produce, rivaling the output of printers costing $30,000 to a million or more. According to the team’s project page on Kickstarter:
“Our reason for starting this project is simple: there are no low-cost 3D printers that meet the quality standards of the professional designer. As researchers at the MIT Media Lab, we were lucky to experience the best and most expensive fabrication equipment in the world. But, we became frustrated by the fact that all the professional-quality 3D printers were ridiculously expensive (read: tens of thousands of dollars) and were so complex to use. In 2011, we decided to build a solution to this problem ourselves, and we are now ready to share it with the world.”
Now it turns out that Formlabs may have violated a patent belonging to 3D Systems, one of the companies that makes those expensive, professional-quality 3D printers. Clearly 3D Systems was not happy and yesterday announced that they’ve filed a patent infringement suit against Formlabs and Kickstarter.
As I was walking around the GraphExpo show in Chicago last week, one nagging thought kept recurring. What’s different from last time I was here? Sure there were a few new software players and some new digital presses, but really, what had changed since the last time I was there in 2007? Nothing really revolutionary. Pretty much every program, every device, and every finishing solution was dedicated to putting ink on paper. While I’m not ready to argue that print as an overall business is dying, some of the killer applications I saw in 2007 are either dead or on life support. Software manuals? Digital. Statements? Paperless. Just this week in fact, Newsweek announced that they’re going to a digital-only format after 80 years as a printed magazine. What is the industry’s plan for a future with even less print?
I spent a lot of time talking with vendors like Lexmark and HP. I asked how they were doing in light of their companies overall performance and their respective decisions to exit the desktop inkjet printer market. Most seemed to feel insulated from that side of the business. In fact the production people at HP gave me the impression that they were one of the only shining stars inside the company. I sat in their booth wondering how long that tugboat could drag the barge behind it. They’ll need to pivot soon or get ready to join Kodak on death row.
Then today I read this fascinating piece on how 3D printing could save HP. It seems like a natural pivot for them. They’ve got the infrastructure and experience of producing devices on a large scale. They understand the consumable side. They’ve got an extensive distribution network. They still spend a ton on R&D and could easily redirect some of it or acquire one of the many smaller startups that have taken an early lead in the 3D market.
The market is developing rapidly and it seems new applications are being announced every day.
To reach scale rapidly, a lot of infrastructure needs to be developed. So maybe the bigger question is, what could HP do for 3D printing? With their considerable experience in development, design and packaging, they could certainly help better “productize” 3D printers for the home market. With considerable technical and marketing resources they could help simplify the software, mainstream awareness of the technology, and flush out applications for its use.