3D Printing — From a New Buyer’s Perspective (2013)
Just over a year ago I reported from the TCT show in the UK about the state-of-the-art in 3D printers at that time from the perspective of a potential new buyer. It appears that was quite a popular feature, so 12 months on, and despite having been close to a 3D printer purchase, I am still looking for the right solution for my business. With that in mind and considering how fast some things change in this industry, Rachel twisted my arm again to write a follow up piece.
So here goes:
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If you follow this site regularly you will undoubtedly be aware of all the consolidations and take overs that have happened in the industry during the last 12 months. You will also be aware of the explosion in Kickstarter funded 3D printer projects and the general level of frantic hype generated by the mainstream media over anything remotely linked to 3D printing.
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In contrast, the TCT show is an event that dates back the best part of two decades. All the big 3D printer vendors come here and the focus is still very much on business to business – in other words exactly what interests me. So I once again headed to the NEC in September, to see what was new. There have been new shows popping up in the last 12 months but these seem to be focused on that very nebulous creature – the 3D printing consumer.
So let’s get the technology out the way first as a follow up to last year’s report.
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This year there was an actual Stratasys stand (as opposed to last year’s Laserlines stand featuring Stratasys). The reason being of course, that this year Stratasys includes Objet, and the entire UK distribution and reseller channels have changed so Stratasys (FDM) resellers, like LaserLines, can now sell Objet, and Objet resellers now sell FDMs. In addition, all the old HP resellers that sold the HP version of the UPrint also now seem to sell Objet and “proper” Stratasys FDMs as well. What does this mean for the buyer? Well I think it means confusion. It also creates issues with support and warranty, not to mention pricing, with resellers pitching against each other for the same machines. You could argue that is better for the buyer, but the reality is that the buyer (unless they really do their homework) could be buying from resellers with little or no in house support. Personally I think over the next 12 months this will lead to consolidation in the reseller market, with some dropping out and others investing in the areas that matter – support and service.
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In terms of actual technology, there was nothing new in our budget range (up to £15k). For that price you are looking at Mojo, UPrint or possibly entry level Objet. All are good machines but all use very costly materials. I covered these last year and they are all the same this year so nothing new to report.
The Makerbot Factor:
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A few months ago Stratasys bought Makerbot for a lot of money. Last year at TCT Makerbot was in the “Makers” area. This year the independent Makerbot stand was right at the front of the main show, well away from the RepRap/Makers area or similar machines. Clearly the Stratasys money is kicking in, in terms of marketing budget, and this year Makerbot had a stand covered with Replicator 2s and 2Xs, and the new scanner of course, ably supported by a small army of hip young things. 12 months ago the R2 was out, just, but had not made it to the UK show. This year there was not a piece of plywood in sight — all black and chic, with R2s chuntering away printing out houses, twirly vases and other items designed to print well on the R2 platform.
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Now I actually like the Makerbot R2. I think it is a nice machine, and I know a few designers who have bought one, and some get excellent results from them. So why do they always print out the same old nonsense at shows? The TCT audience consists largely of engineers, designers and similar professionals. Let’s see some interesting product parts. I know they can be done – I’ve seen them.
What I was less keen on is the scanner, branded as the Digitizer. Yes it is a nice product, but nobody on the stand could get beyond the sales pitch and give me technical details. Next year someone needs to tell them to turn the scanner round against a wall because shining lasers out into the audience’s eyes is not a good idea! We purchased a NextEngine scanner years ago for under £2000 (at the time). The NextEngine device is a far superior scanner to the Digitizer in every way, better designed and built, better software, better resolution, more flexible and better links to mainstream CAD. The Makerbot Digitizer is aimed at a market where the user wants to scan small objects and replicate them in glorious PLA. In other words, not me.
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What is interesting to me is how Stratasys will get value from the $400m they paid for Makerbot. According to Stratasys’ own financial reports prior to the release of Mojo, they were shipping about 750 units a quarter. This last quarter the figure was up to 5200 units — most of which are no doubt Makerbots. Also, I overheard a conversation about Mojo’s being heavily discounted. Will Stratasys quietly drop U Print and Mojo and merge them into the Makerbot line up? The issue with expansion into markets like education and SME is capital outlay and running costs. For companies like ours, it makes no financial sense to buy a UPrint level machine — £12k, plus £230/kg build materials, plus annual support contracts of around £1500. The simple fact is we can buy in SLS Nylon parts for less or around the same cost as building parts in-house on a UPrint or Mojo. No, we don’t get a 12hr turnaround, but in our business during the design phase that is not so critical (and in any case we can get a 2-day SLS turnaround in the UK). For fast turnaround jobs (ie next day) we do have several options. And, we don’t have to deal with failed builds!
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And so to the other giant. Last year 3D Systems had a single Cube on the stand surrounded by high-end machines and parts. This year there were dozens of Cubes dotted around, all in action. I’ve seen the Cube before, but had another look. This is a nice little machine, not fast, not fantastic quality, but it is set up for ease of use and with thanks to the glue before print method, probably one of the most reliable ABS printers in the sub £2k range. I wouldn’t buy one though.
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The larger CubeX was also in wide use. The former Bytes from Bytes machine has had the 3DS makeover and now comes with better software, but essentially produces prints much the same as before.
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Aside from the Cubes though, there is a yawning chasm in the 3DS range until you get to the £13k ProJets, which aside from a new paint job are pretty much the same, except of course the old Z Corp brand has now vanished without trace to be replaced by Projet. Looking at how 3DS brands its “Personal” range, it offers FDM, ZCorp (sorry Projet) and Resin systems, with a price range from about £1k to over £20k. I do have to ask the question how they can define any ProJet machine as “personal”, but there you go.
So that sums up the big boys in the sub £20k market. Nothing new. Same machines, same prices, same reasons not to buy.
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Walking into the show, the orange MCOR stand was like a breath of fresh air in the silver and grey world of corporate 3D. Let me say, I like MCOR. I like the team and the way they do things. But more than that, I think they have a genuinely unique system with the paper based printing system.
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The MCOR stand was packed all day, with people peering into the machine as it printed, and picking up all the Iris print samples, passing them around and marvelling at the quality and general freakiness of holding a mini head!
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The MCOR machines are not personal machines, but ironically enough they could well be more available than most through a deal with Staples to site the printers in some stores as part of their copy centres. Eventually, you may be able to just pop into Staples and order a print. How this works is still a little uncertain but it is happening. What is also happening is that MCOR has a much wider distribution network now, so this is a company going places.
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It will be interesting to see if MCOR is absorbed into a larger company like Stratasys or 3DS. The difference is that unlike FDM, or other technologies, the machines uses paper as the build material…as in standard office paper. So there is little scope to make money on consumables, so perhaps not attractive to the corporates after all.
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The Iris is a wonderful machine that is finding some niche applications, and combined with the low running costs makes it a perfect purchase for many. Combine it with a quality 3D colour scanner, and you have the ability to replicate small objects or museum artefacts (for example). I think this could really lead to a mini revolution in the way some museums interpret their collections — allowing visitors to touch, hold (and ultimately buy) copies of the objects on display. Yes you can do this with other printers, but not in colour and not at a few pounds a print. That is the difference, and MCOR know it.
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Last year this small Danish outfit introduced us to its new blue coloured printer offering pre orders for €10k. This year the printer is now white, about to go into series production and available from local resellers for €15k.
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The basic machine is the same as before, but I had a long chat with one of the Danish team and he showed me all the new print samples and materials. The underlying technology is similar to SLS but fuses the powder at a lower temperature so the end print is not as robust as SLS or production level FDM. We discussed material costs and I would say you are looking at similar costs to running a Makerbot once you recycle the powder.
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All in all, with full production imminent, new resellers across Europe and reasonable material and machine costs this is a company to watch. But, again, how long until they are snapped up?
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I came across these machines for the first time last year, described to me by a nameless person as “knock-off UPrints”. Well, there may be an element of truth in that, but they seem to be well made machines, with heated build chambers (so how they get around Stratasys patents I’m not sure).
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The machines are available in the UK from a variety of resellers, but we were on the Denford stand. Denford also sell the Up! Printer. I know the Up! Machine quite well, having had one on loan for a few months, but here’s the thing. The Tiertime machines use materials that come in 2kg reels – they opened the side up to show me. Yet those 2kg reels cost £230 each! Given that Denford sells primarily into the education market I questioned the guys on the stand about the high cost and they said they “recommend buying cheaper materials”. Odd.
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The new Ultimaker 2 was launched in the UK at TCT. This is a very nice machine – no plywood, heated bed, fast. This is, I think, the best alternative to Makerbot, especially when teamed up with Nettfab software. Amazingly enough, Ultimaker were printing parts that were not twirly vases! They even printed the ubiquitous adjustable spanner (sorry wrench for those from the USA) much favoured as a UPrint and Objet sample part.
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I was looking forward to having a chat with Sally Bower and Richard Horne but the Open Source section of the show (RepRap based machines) was crammed into a corner and 10 deep all day long. Sorry guys. I did manage to sneek a peek at Richard’s new 3D printer and it was very impressive – probably the most innovative product at the show…but guys…print me something other than a twirly vase (in joke). Richard, Makerbot is after a new technical director… if they have any sense they will make you an offer!
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What was interesting about this section of the show was the difference between the heaving masses in the RepRap machine areas and the echoing silence of the iMakr stand, which was decked out to look like some kind of Alpine country kitchen with a few SLS parts dotted around. On the other side of the maker area the Jewellery stand with its plastic rings and bangles (at £25 a pop) had more interest, if only from the “THAT is £25?” onlookers.
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So you have here the two sides of the Maker phenomenon. The build your own open source makers who experiment, build machines and share knowledge, and the “brands” set up to service the consumer “demand”. iMakr has a store in London (apparently set up to look like the stand – or vice versa). I’ve made my feelings on this quite clear on. I don’t think there is any consumer demand for this type of 3D printed product. The problem is 3D printed product looks great in glossy magazines but looks like coarse bits of coloured plastic in the flesh. Also, I thought the whole point of consumer 3D printing was personalization – not simply buying an off the shelf design.
Missing in Action:
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A big disappointment for me were the companies who did not make an appearance. Leapfrog was absent. But worse, no FormLabs! Here is a company that introduced its machine to the world during TCT last year (but didn’t actually go). The company made an appearance at the London 3D Printing Show last year — and this — and after a record KickStarter campaign they are actually shipping printers.
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The Form1 is a printer I would buy today if it was available from a UK reseller. I mentioned I came close to a purchase during the last 12 months, well I actually went through the order process for a Form 1 in May, only to stop when we came to the delivery costs and availability of resins. Delivery alone was $475 to the UK (plus import charges), with resins only available by ordering from the USA, again with huge delivery costs.
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I thought, here is a show attracting the very type of customer they are trying to sell to, so they will definitely be here this year (and I am sure I recall a tweet earlier in the year saying the same). No. They were missing. Clearly their marketing team needs to look at the demographics of the shows they attend and rethink…but then, what do I know?
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This year the show seemed to have a different feel. There seemed to be far more service bureau on show, all showing interesting parts. I worked out that I have purchased parts from seven exhibitors in the last 12 months, so it was nice to put faces to names or to catch up with people I’ve not seen for a while.
There was also the education side which had a closed off classroom setup with lots of Cubes. I think the idea here was that schools visited and had lessons in 3D printing then wandered around the show. Personally I thought this was a great idea, and perhaps this can be extended as a concept into a large mobile unit (based on a bus perhaps) that can be driven around? Perhaps next year, if they do the same thing they can link up school groups with a show guide to take them around the stands in small groups, show the technologies and answer questions? Maybe invite show attendees to help?
All in all another good show, that, for me at least, retains its place as the No 1 3D Printing Show in the UK for professional users. No, it doesn’t have the glitz of the London shows, or the interaction of the maker events, but it does have breadth. That for me, is what makes it.
Image Credit: TCT Show