Thursday, 9 January 2014

3D Systems appoints will.i.am as Chief Creative Officer (CCO)

In a surprising move for will.i.am and for 3D Systems, the company has issued a press release stating:

January 8, 2014 – 3D Systems today announced that will.i.am, global entertainer, entrepreneur and philanthropist, joined 3DS as its Chief Creative Officer. In this leadership role, will.i.am will inspire, shape and drive all of 3DS’ initiatives to mainstream the use of 3D printing through major collaborations with creative brand partners, innovative global campaigns and educational grand challenges designed to grow the popularity of 3D printing.



The addition of will.i.am to the 3DS team brings tremendous talent, vision and influence, and underscores the company’s commitment to democratize 3D printing.  3DS plans to leverage will.i.am’s international creative industry network to immediately extend its reach into select high-end fashion accessories houses, leading entertainment and life style brands and key corporate sponsored educational and sustainability initiatives.

“3D printing lets you get involved, be a part of the creative process and the story of the items you make,” said will.i.am, Chief Creative Officer, 3DS. ”For me it’s a dream come true to work with 3DS, the company that invented 3D printing and launched an entire platform that all other industries depend on. I am so thrilled to begin to fuse my creativity and experience with the technology that is poised to change how we create, make and express ourselves.”

 “We’re excited to partner with a pop culture influencer of will.i.am’s caliber who really gets 3D printing and its potential,” said Avi Reichental, President and CEO of 3DS. “will.i.am is a global tastemaker who embodies the essence of creativity and entrepreneurship, and we are fortunate to have him as our guide on this exciting journey.”

Original press release

Do consumers really want to 3D print?

It's far from clear whether the average consumer wants to 3D print. Take this trend as evidence:

MakerBot industries started out making kits for 3D printers. They then discovered that the market for printer kits (i.e. a set of parts) was vanishingly small. So they started to produce pre-built 3D printers and eventually withdrew the kit market altogether. With 3D Printers, it appears, consumers want a complete product, not a construction project. Why should it be any different for any other product category?



This shift of MakerBot's business no doubt went against the 'maker' roots of their enthusiastic and motivating CEO, Bre Prettis, but he had no choice if his new venture funding partners were to build a scale business.

MakerBot and their investors also discovered that very few people have 3D design skills, and so initiated an effort called Thingiverse to provide (and share) downloadable 3D objects for 'making' on a home 3D printer. No doubt some 'maker' or 'arts and design' users do adapt these designs .... but one cannot help thinking that if the object that comes out of your printer is the same as the download file, you might very well just buy a manufactured item.

Consumers may not have the time or skills or patience for 3D home printing. And the trend continues ...

MakerBot have announced at CES 2014 (Las Vegas) a new 3D content store which is being hailed by some as the 'iTunes' of 3D printing. Listen to how this is described:

"The game-changing new MakerBot digital store features a host of professionally designed digital 3D models, created by an in-house team at MakerBot, made to be simple and easy to purchase and print with one-touch." "3D printing can be a bit daunting from the outside, so we’ve created all these 3D designs that you can buy individual models or as a collection - a bit like songs - and create fun for kids and adults alike," admits Bre Pettis.

Previously MakerBot offered a cloud-based design sharing service called Thingiverse, which allowed users to upload their designs and share them with a community and access them from anywhere with a MakerBot 3D printer. The new digital store sits alongside the Thingiverse service, augmenting it with professional, proven designs that are guaranteed to work, and launches with six different collections of models primarily based around children’s toys.



The models can be picked up individually for $0.99 or as whole collections of models for $9.99 and include mini characters spanning every day life, construction, dragons, knights, kings and queens, as well as little pet animals for the kids. For adults, the model collection also includes a series of rocket ships and “famous flyers” – models inspired by key real-life aircraft from history.

What the next step in this trend? Yes, you guessed it: just ordering the product from a supplier? That's got to be even simpler than the one-button automated software process that Makerbot are implementing between their 3D iTunes web site and a printer in your home. Seems over complex .... why not leave it to the supplier to decide how to fulfil (and customise to user preferences) your order .... from a shelf (inventory), or on demand 3D printing? Why does a home need a 3D printer? Do consumers really want 'distributed manufacturing'?

The trend which MakerBot (the poster-child of consumer 3D printing) seems to be admitting is that consumers want whole products, not processes. An order button on Amazon is surely no different from a 'Make Button' if there is no design involved. Consumers will always jump to buy the products they want, and care less about the process behind them.

It's a fact: Consumers don't want to make things, unless they are a maker. They don't want to design things, unless they are a designer. And they don't want to have lots of equipment lying around the house just to be able to order the products they want .... they already have Smartphones for that.

Weigh up the following equation:  Amazon delivery in just a few days (or less) .v. ownership and maintenance of a 3D printer) only able to produce simple plastic models. No contest. One is a CapEx+OpEx model, the other an OpEx model. Unless MakerBot intend to give printers away for free.

And why not have Amazon decide whether to carry inventory or print on demand in their warehouses?

So what is MakerBot (and 3D Systems with Cube and Cubify) really creating? They are creating a new toy and hobby, not a manufacturing revolution.

And think about this: won't all the really interesting new products that consumers will want next (such as all the other complex gadgets at CES 2014) be far, far, more complex than any 3D printer will be able to create, no matter how sophisticated or expensive?

Discuss. What have I missed?



Those who are familiar with this blog will know that some of the 'thought experients' I set up should not be read as indicating what I personally believe. In the next article we'll look more closely at the tangled relationships that 3D printing creates between a product, its design, and its production and consumption, hoping to shed light on what will happen in 3D printing over the next few years

The 3D printing acquisition juggernaut

Remember the merger of Stratasys and Objet? Or the acquisition of ZCorp by 3D Systems? As we observed, consolidation is not necessarily a sign of a perfectly healthy industry. It could mean companies are struggling to go it alone. It could also signify that the Additive Manufacturing industry is shifting from products to services, a process known as 'servitization'. When an industry shifts to services there is always a rush to become THE total solution provider.

Preeminent among the the acquirers is 3D Systems. We have reported on their long history of acquisitions before. What looked like perfectly good companies all became units within the 3D Systems umbrella.

Why are good companies with good products not able to make it on their own? There are two factors:

1. In an industry shifting to services, product companies lose their route to market. 3D Systems is now that route to market.

2. Despite the media hype and inflated expectations of a 3D revolution, Additive Manufacturing is a quiet evolution. It is a niche within manufacturing, slowly absorbed, one part at a part. It is not one technology - but many different processes each requiring its own hardware - a set of niches within a niche.

And more and more acquisitions are announced almost every month. The latest by 3D Systems include:

Figulo a specialist in the 3D printing of ceramics and whose products and services will now be marketed under the 3D Systems brand CeraJet.



TheSugarLab, a specialist in the 3D printing of edible products and whose products and services will now be marketed under the 3D systems brand ChefJet.


Village Plastics, a supplier of 3D printing filaments.


Gentle Giant Studios, a 3D sculpting, VFX and 3D scanning specialist sitting on a large body of content.


3D Systems now describes itself as "a leading provider of 3D printing centric design-to-manufacture solutions including 3D printers, print materials and cloud sourced on-demand custom parts for professionals and consumers alike in materials including plastics, metals, ceramics and edibles."

3D Systems have been patiently waiting for AM to go mainstream for over twenty years. It was the RepRap community and the companies it spawned (notably Makerbot and Ultimaker) that opened up the consumer, 'maker' and the arts and design opportunities. Another factor was the emergence of on-demand, self-service, Web-based bureau services such as Shapeways, iMaterialize and Sculpteo. (I call these '3D Experiences'. 3D Systems now has its own 'Cube' series of products and services.)

The rush is on.

3D Systems appears to be trading R&D dollars for acquisitions. For CEO Avi Reichental the challenge will be cross-selling among its businesses and integration of the very diverse portfolio of products it owns. To what extent such acquisitions, as opposed to innovation, can bolster the company's share price will only become evident once the hype around 3D printing dies down.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

3D Systems announces 3D Printing 2.0

Avi Reichental, CEO of 3D Systems, announces his exciting new products and services at Euromold 2013 and CES 2014. Don't you just love how this guy asks his staff to present the new products, and then interrupts them and prevents them speaking .... almost giving them a 'Sales' lesson live on camera.



Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Everything is a 3D printer these days

Our theory is that there is "No such thing as 3D Printing", but it appears that the media believe otherwise. To them, everything is a 3D Printer! This stance is fueling unrealistic expectations for Additive Manufacturing.

The hype works like this: The more objects that are presented as able to be "3D Printed", the more a "3D Printer" sounds to the uninformed observer like a current day (not futuristic) magical technology.

The latest examples include a circuit board/PCB "3D Printer", a "3D Printer" that prints disposable panties and a "3D Printer" that knits jumpers.  In all three cases the media described these innovations as "3D Printers". Not only are utterly different from each other, but they share little to nothing in common with mainstream Additive Manufacturing technologies.

Here are the latest "3D Printers":

The EX1 PCB Printer layers silver particles onto paper (or any suitable surface) to rapidly create an electronic circuit board. Components can then be soldered in place. It uses two ink jet cartridges to dispense two different chemicals which mix to produce a silver image.

Tamicare Cosyflex layers natural rubber polymers and cotton fibers to create a stretchy, biodegradable fabric. It feels like a woven cloth. It sprays the raw materials moving along an automated production line. It certainly looks like no "3D Printer" I have ever seen.  Its inventors claim the same approach can be used to create textiles from materials such as silicon, teflon, viscose and polyamide, and do so with combinations of patterns, embossing and perforations. The process is quick and can produce a pair of pants in under three seconds (which equates to up to 10 million units a year).




The Stoll knitting machine is also now dubbed a 3D printer. According to some reports it "3D prints" clothes. In fact, it reads measurements from a software application and then automatically knits them with minimal waste. The final garment still needs to be stitched together. A company called Applatch is running a campaign on KickStarter to fund their own Stoll machine so as to better serve their customers with custom fit sweaters that meet the company's sustainability and ethical goals, i.e. using the minimum naturally sourced materials.

What do these three stories of "3D Printing" tell us? What exactly is "3D Printing"? Watch this space for our definition coming soon.


There is no such thing as "3D Printing"

We've said it before, and we'll say it again. There is no such thing as "3D Printing". What there is instead are over thirty different additive manufacturing (layer by layer) processes (the majority of which oriented in the field of rapid prototyping). They share little in common.

We listed some of these in our article "Hype and Hope in 3D Printing". We also talked about the 3D Printing industry as being a set of "Niches within a Niche".

These realities have significant implications. 

Without a standard 3D Printing platform there won't be an exponential growth curve as occurred with the PC revolution leading to today's cloud computing giants. Yet such is the hype generated by the 3D Printing providers and the media (primarily) that even our most respected AM industry analysts are somewhat embarrassed. As a result, they are finding themselves in the unenviable position of having to 'play down' expectations when they are invited to speak on-stage at industry events.

If you have not already done so, I do recommend watching three informative presentations from TCT Show + Personalize '13 in a track called 'Mythbusting 3D Printing'. The presentations are both funny and revealing.

Firstly, Joris Peels compares the hype around 3D printing to claims for a 'new' but very very old technology called Rotary Desktop Fabrication (RDF):



Todd Grimm lists a raft of new product announcements, but also sets a tone of caution for their incremental impact:


And finally, Phil Groves explains why "3D printing is NOT going to be as big as the Internet", despite claims to the contrary from industry leader 3D Systems.



There is hype and hope for 3D Printing. Next up, our view on what could be happening. Watch this space.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Randomized porosity grown into 3D Printed Object

Since our original post about Within Technologies the use of their software which models 3D Printable objects in ways that mimic nature (complex internal and external optimized structures) has expanded.

In this video, EOS explain how they are working with Within Technologies to 3D Print parts with extreme degrees of structural complexity. Here, a heat ex-changer is shown designed for Formula 1 racing cars. The strength/weight ratio is significantly increased.

A hip 'cup' for human implant is also shown. It was grown in titanium by the Within Medical team. It's structure includes zones of randomized porosity. This allows for bone and tissue growth into the artificial joint.

Such geometries are impossible to achieve using any other manufacturing process.



Within Technologies is a UK engineering consultancy and software development firm who have dramatically advanced 3D design software in ways that enable the modelling of latticed micro-structures and variable density surface skins combined with "Bio-inspired" shapes.

At the core of the software lies an optimization engine which takes input parameters such as desired weight requirements, maximum displacement and stiffness. It is then able to create an optimized component design with a variable density lattice structure and surface skin which meets your exact specification. The optimized component can then be manufactured using one of many additive manufacturing machines (plastics or metals) to create products.