By Cassandra Balentine
Beyond the 2D world, the 3D market is promising. The enterprise market for 3D printing is lead by opportunities in product development and manufacturing. Major players in the inkjet, ink-on-paper space—or 2D—are poised for future 3D technology development.
Pete Basiliere, research VP, imaging and printing services, Gartner, explains that of the seven types of 3D printing technologies, two are print like, including binder and material jetting, which rely on inkjet technology.
Binder jetting technology is similar to inkjet in that it relies on printheads to jet out a binder. When the binder is mixed with a layer of powder, layers begin to form. The process can create full color, 3D prints.
Also similar to inkjet printing, material jetting replaces ink for photopolymers, which build up to form layers cured with UV light.
Since these viable 3D printing technologies are based on processes similar to inkjet, Basiliere is optimistic that announcements in 3D will come from the 2D space by the Fall of next year. “Theoretically, any of the major inkjet manufacturers could extend their offering from a technical perspective,” he offers.
Companies like Agfa and Konica Minolta have announced resale partnerships with leading 3D providers, while others, such as Hewlett-Packard (HP), are busy developing their own technology.
Last October, HP introduced its Multi Jet Fusion technology, which is built on the company’s Thermal Inkjet technology.
In a technical white paper, HP Multi Jet Fusion technology, the company explains that the technology starts by laying down a thin layer of material in the working area. “Next, the carriage containing an HP Thermal Inkjet array passes from left to right, printing chemical agents across the full working area. The layering and energy processes are combined in a continuous pass of the second carriage from top to bottom. The process continues, layer by layer, until a complete part is formed. At each layer, the carriages change direction for optimum productivity,” reads the white paper.
The company says that when using HP Thermal Inkjet arrays with a higher number of nozzles per inch, its proprietary synchronous architecture is capable of printing over 30 million drops per second across each inch of the working area.
HP says its long-term vision for the technology is to create parts that are “controllably variable—even quite different—mechanical and physical properties within a single part or among separate parts processed simultaneously in the working area,” according to the white paper. To do this, the technology controls the interaction of the fusing and detailing agents with each other as well as the material to be fused and additional transforming agents.
The company says its first commercial Multi Jet Fusion product will build parts using production thermoplastic materials.
Also of note, Mimaki Engineering Co., Ltd. of Japan announced its plans to develop 3D printers based on its own technology. To launch its inroad into the market, the company plans to operate as a service provider of the technology.
Adding 3D to the Mix
In addition to HP and Mimaki’s technology announcements, strategic partnerships are another indicator of the increasing role of 3D technologies in the 2D space. In 2014, both Agfa and Konica Minolta announced distribution agreements with 3D Systems (3DS).
“The Agfa Graphics-3DS partnership was unveiled to the industry at the SGIA trade show in 2014 and our relationship is going strong,” notes Jim Lally, director of inside sales, Agfa Graphics.
The company has integrated the 3DS product line into its own inkjet printing portfolio, and is introducing new devices to its customer base, who Lally says, have a wide array of 3D applications.
For example, with the ProJet 660 Pro and Cube/CubeX Personal 3D Printer solutions, Agfa offers print service providers new solutions for their customers. “One thing is clear, printers are interested in looking at devising new ways to reach their customers and 3D printing will become a certain necessity in the near future,” he adds.
In 2014, 3DS announced a strategic alliance with Konica Minolta, in which Konica Minolta’s nationwide network of dealers and authorized resellers, as well as its direct sales channel, distribute the 3DS printing product portfolio. With this alliance, Konica Minolta entered the 3D printing market, providing its customers with additive manufacturing solutions to complement and expand on existing business. At the time of the agreement, the company planned to target high-growth industries such as manufacturing/industrial, healthcare, and education applications.
Konica Minolta is still focused on high-growth vertical markets, since it compliments both greatly. This new business for Konica Minolta will continue to grow and evolve as the technology changes almost daily.
Basiliere suggests that these partnerships target the enterprise with the goal of providing the printer and supply sales to go along with it. “Fundamentally, the technical service providers in the paper printing space have an opportunity to expand into adjacent markets with 3D.”
Gartner sees 3D at its current inflection point. Basiliere notes that for the first 25 years, sales were modest. “Market drivers are aligning, the awareness has increased dramatically, and the technology has improved. The market is staged to take off,” he says, adding that most of the units sold will be priced under $1,000, which is generally considered the consumer category, and definitely $2,500.
The enterprise devices, which typically come in above the $2,500 mark, hit applications beyond the prototypes and finished goods typically associated with the technology. Gartner predicts that their use to create items such as tools, jigs, and fixtures—that are ultimately created for use and not sale—will gain popularity as adoption continues and awareness grows.
Basiliere notes that enterprises are beginning to use 3D printing in their assembly lines to make custom tools and fixtures. “For example, at BMW, not only have they created a fixture that enables workers to affix the company’s ‘Roundel’ logo badge, but also the custom 3D-printed tools that the assembly line workers use reduce the amount of repetitive motion,” he explains.
While much of the future 3D opportunity is expected in the enterprise level—areas that will be target markets, when traditional 2D players enter the space—there are also a few areas ripe for the traditional print market to step in.
Basiliere notes that a number of printing companies are actively looking at the technology.
The market for 3D printing as a service is tempting, and is well suited for applications such as prototyping, modeling, and packaging.
The future of 3D is promising for many fields. While players like HP and Mimaki have already showed investment in the 3D space, we expect others are waiting in the wings. dps