New Technologies in 2014: Flying Cars? How About a 3-D Printer Instead?

By Greg Walters

Is 3-D printing the adjacent market we’ve been looking for? What’s there to say about new technologies? Are we all dashing off to the office in flying cars? No. Can I walk up to a panel on the wall and demand, “Tea, Earl Grey, hot,” and expect a steeped brew to pop out? No.

Closer to home, can you or I remotely scan our clients’ networks and examine every PC, server, firewall, phone, tablet, laptop, piece of software, copier and printer — local and network-connected? Can we see every detail from power usage to network traffic, pages printed and current toner levels for every single device in the world — even local printers? No. Don’t you dare tell me that you’ve got the secret, that your software can see every device, MIB, toner level and document type ever sent.* (*There must always be an asterisk.)

It seems like time is standing still

Remember when managed print services was fresh, shiny and new? How some people walked around the edges, a few jumped in, and others declared it a fad? That was 2007.

Remember when the iPad hit the market and the establishment ignored it? That was April 3, 2010. In the first 80 days, 3 million units were sold.

Remember when the HP tablet came to market? Probably not. The TouchPad was introduced July 1, 2011. The ThinkPad was discontinued 49 days later on August 18, 2011. Those were vexing days.

Remember that Mayan calendar end-of-the-world thing? It was just over a year ago. The planet is still here, the calendar works, and the stars hang comfortably in the night sky.

Looking back at 2013, I can see no new technology. Indeed, there hasn’t been anything new over the past four years. I guess one could reasonably argue we haven’t seen anything really new since the 1960s.

With that said, submitted here for your review is a sampling of the most talked-about business-oriented technological hot buttons we’ve been dealing with for the past 18 months:

  •  Bring your own device (BYOD) — been there, done that (BTDT).
  •  Remote monitoring and management (RMM) software companies have been consolidated into the cloud.
  •  Near field communications (NFC) must be good if Apple is into it, but it’s not all that new.
  •  Mobile print doesn’t increase print volumes. It does increase mobile print software revenue.
  •  Growth in color output — didn’t we do this in 2002?
  •  Electronic document management/enterprise content management (EDM/ECM): 1999 called, they want their Novell back …
  •  Business intelligence/mobile business intelligence (BI/MBI): End game, but for now, way over everybody’s head. Soon …
  •  The paperless office: People still mock the idea, especially those whose livelihood depends on melting toner, but they are on the wrong side of history.

Out of all of the hot buttons and fads, is there one that will be the next “killer” app?

No, not really. Indeed, 2013 goes down as the Quiet Year, or the Year We Rediscovered Document Management.

Enough of the past. What about today, at the beginning of 2014? The one exciting item to me is 3-D printing. Not because of any new technology; 3-D printing has been around for decades. Not because I see every office on the planet replacing their big copiers with a big 3-D printer. It’s because 3-D printing has the potential to be the adjacent market we’ve been looking for.

Let’s explore the wonderful world of 3-D printing and what it might mean to you and me.

The 3-D bandwagon: Coming to a town near you

First, 3-D printing isn’t printing or copying in the sense that we know. In fact, some folks don’t refer to the equipment as printers at all. Jeff Raquet, director of UNC Charlotte’s Rapid Product Realization Lab, calls them “additive manufacturing machines,” a term that reflects the process of stacking layers of material to make an end product. In contrast, the subtractive process of a machine such as a lathe shaves a block of material to finished size.

Obviously, the output is three-dimensional and utilized less to communicate ideas and more to function in a mechanical manner. It’s like a drawing of a gear on paper versus an actual gear, and this is the primary differentiator between that niche and ours. These machines make gears and movable items, in color, out of all sorts of material, but most often, objects are made out of some sort of resin/plastic. The principle is simple, and if you’ve ever used a hot glue gun, you’ve witnessed the rudimentary process firsthand.

Until recently, these devices were used mainly in large engineering departments or firms because they carried a high acquisition cost. As with everything, costs fall; today, 3-D printers can be purchased for as little as $1,300 — which, while not exactly “under the Christmas tree” pricing, is much lower than the hundreds of thousands they cost just a few years back.

Additionally, 3-D printing has reached apogee on Gartner’s hype cycle — for whatever that’s worth.

The 3-D printer channel — B2B or B2C?

According to a new market research report published by MarketsandMarkets, the 3-D printing market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 23 percent from 2013 to 2020 and reach $8.41 billion in 2020. Compare this to 2012’s total copier and printer market of $50.9 billion, and you can see the relative position of 3-D printing. It’s new and not that big.

Today, there are many 3-D printer firms and companies, both Kickstarter-based and established. The players are varied, both old and new. 3D Systems out of Rock Hill, N.C., is one of the major players with $90.5 million in revenue for 2012 and $135.7 million projected for 2013.

Two marketing philosophies prevail: B2B, which includes selling 3-D to engineering/manufacturing firms for prototypes, and B2C, which involves producing trinkets for individual consumers (Staples).

On the manufacturing front, companies are starting to invest in 3-D printers for duties beyond modeling. Last fall, GE Aviation acquired two companies with 3-D printing technology. The acquisitions were part of an effort to start making fuel nozzles for its new LEAP engine from a metal alloy formed in layers by lasers rather than by casting and welding. The cobalt-chromium parts are expected to be lighter than those made through traditional methods, and as you can imagine, reducing weight from engine components makes engines more fuel-efficient. GE is investing $3.5 billion in 3-D production and demonstrated the process at the Paris Air Show. Industry projections call for more than 10 percent of manufacturing to convert to the additive process in the next decade from a minimal share today.

This article originally appeared in the January 2014 issue of The Imaging Channel.

About the Author

Greg Walters, senior correspondent for the Business Transformation Center, is president of Walters & Shutwell, the mobility, communications and transformation consultancy as well as the president of the Managed Print Services Association. During an IT sales and services career that has spanned a quarter century, he helped turn a large West Coast VAR’s struggling managed print services practice into a highly profitable business. Walters started his imaging career in 1999, working with Oce, Panasonic and IKON. A prolific writer and frequent speaker at industry events, Walters considers himself a “Contrarian Technologist”; someone with a unique and provocative view of technology and how to sell it in the 21st century.