How Document Printers Are Like Additive Manufacturing Machines

The document printing industry has experienced a long and vibrant life.

By Terry Wohlers, President, Wohlers Associates

The "Wohlers" column is authored by Terry Wohlers for Time Compression.
This column was published in the November/December 2010 issue.

The document printing industry has experienced a long and vibrant life. It originated with expensive industrial systems, and over time, migrated to organizations of all sizes. This occurred in a big way when printers became digital and driven by desktop computers. Eventually, document printers found their way into homes for personal use as well as for home-based business applications. For years, I have noticed parallels between the document printing and additive manufacturing (AM) industries, and expect similarities, and some distinct differences, in the future.

Document printing began in earnest in the 15th century with the Guttenberg printing press. The German inventor did not create printing, although he is acknowledged as the inventor of the modern process. It led to printing systems of many types and sizes for a wide range of organizations. It was not until the last 25 years or so that the document printer began to find its way into homes in developed nations around the world. The personal computer can be credited with this advancement.

Similar to most document printing of today, additive manufacturing is driven by digital data. The primary difference is that document printers produce a single layer of output, whereas AM systems produce multiple layers, one on top of the next, to create the output. Some AM systems even use inkjet printing technology, including print heads and cartridges literally sourced from HP (hp.com) and other manufacturers.

Additive manufacturing originated in the late 20th century, which is much later than document printing, but it has not taken as long for it to develop into a mainstream process at many organizations. The first AM systems were slow, expensive, and difficult to use, and the quality of output was not nearly as good as what can be achieved by today’s systems. The same can be said about document printers.

We are now seeing professional AM systems priced in the $15,000 range, as well as experimental, research, and educational kits and assembled AM systems for $750 to $4,000. These systems are being installed in the smallest of organizations, as well as in some homes. Note that the systems being installed in homes are not being used as some had envisioned years ago. They are not being used to reproduce broken parts for appliances or home accessories. Why not? Because these very low-cost systems do not offer the quality, nor do they offer a wide choice of material types or colors necessary for those tasks. Instead, it is believed that they are being used mostly by engineers, engineering students, and other “technical types” that like to create and build stuff experimentally. Inexpensive design software such as Rhino and even Google SketchUp has helped to accelerate this movement.

Consumables for AM systems are also beginning to follow the path of document printing. Some AM system manufacturers are producing sizable revenues on the sale of proprietary materials. As part of their consumables strategy, they are developing systems that expect the customer to purchase the materials from them, and them only. This is not unlike what the document printer companies have done to create recurring revenues. Prices of 3D printers1 continue to decline to the point where the manufacturers are willing to forego some profit on the machine because they expect to more than make up for it in consumable sales. Selling relatively inexpensive 3D printers helps to grow an installed base into which they can sell consumables with a very good profit margin. The manufacturers of document printers have been doing this for many years.

Some believe that this business model is solid long term for the AM system manufacturers. Generally, I believe it has been good for the manufacturers of document printers, but I’m not so sure it will work, long term, for the AM companies. Nearly 90% of the AM systems sold in 2009 are considered 3D printers, but they are also manufacturing systems because they build parts that go into prototypes and even end-use products. If you consider conventional manufacturing processes, such as injection molding, blow molding, and CNC machining, the materials come from third-party suppliers. The customer is free to purchase the materials from a wide range of sources at competitive prices.

If the AM system manufacturers hope to compete in the manufacturing arena, I believe they will need to open their material systems similar to conventional processes. Exceptions are prototypes, custom parts, and very small production runs because they do not consume much material. For larger jobs, high material prices will become an obstacle to growth, even when you consider the time and cost savings of not requiring any tooling.

For now, there’s uncertainty as to whether the AM consumables will follow the document printing model or the manufacturing model. HP entered the AM business earlier this year when it announced an agreement with Stratasys (stratasys.com). My guess is that it’s banking strongly on the document printing consumables model. And other document printer manufacturers that are considering the AM market are thinking in a similar way. TC

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1 According to ASTM International Committee F42 on Additive Manufacturing Technologies, 3D printing is the fabrication of objects through the deposition of a material using a print head, nozzle, or another printer technology. The term is often used synonymously with additive manufacturing; in particular associated with machines that are low end in price and/or overall capability.