Every new technology development is met with fears of obsolescent for all that has gone before it. The printing press killed storytelling. Video killed the radio star. Except, of course, they didn’t. So what of the rumours that increasingly accessible 3D printing will banish the draftsman, the model maker and the service bureaux to the scrap heap? Laura Griffiths asks those in the know.
Aleksandrina Rizova 3D Printed Table Legs from 3DPrintUK
‘Bureau’. It appears to be a bit of a negative word in the 3D printing lexicon and companies that reside under the umbrella of ‘print service providers’ tend to avoid attaching themselves to it. Yet for some time, bureaux and additive manufacturing services have bridged the gap between casual consumers and advanced 3D printing technology, providing facilities to customers who otherwise would not have access to the technology first hand.
However, that gap is gradually getting filled as businesses and individuals begin to try their hand at 3D printing solo. So where does that leave the bureaux, the folks that brought it to them in the first place? We spoke to some of the biggest 3D printing and additive manufacturing service providers in the UK to find out what their take on the future of the 3D printing industry looks like. General consensus? Some very confident bureaux and not a thing to worry about.
“Business is good,” says Dave Bennett Director at 3D Creation Lab. “We work with small businesses to names like Ford. 95% of our business is for product design, verification models – that’s what we do. We give out between 50 to 100 quotes a day and produce about £10,000 of orders a week.”
The scale of 3D printing services ranges from novelty products from as little as £2 to fully functioning end-parts manufactured for huge international companies. With talk of 3D printing being at an exciting high and everyone, so it seems, wanting a piece of the coloured PLA hype, it would be fair to assume that businesses are thriving off the recent public interest.
“There has been an increase in interest but I wouldn’t say it’s in any form of use,” explains Dave. “The current interest is all media hype.”
It is a fair point and a fellow bureau that echoes this sentiment is 3D Print UK, who after a successful year with 600% growth, claim the media hype holds limited traction for their business.
“I think the hype around 3D printing is all based on the people who enjoy the hype and the people who enjoy 3D printing,” says Nick Allen, Founder of 3D Print UK. “The people who are getting very carried away are the people who like to fantasise and that’s probably only about 10% of the world, the other 90% don’t really care how things are made.”
Hype versus reality
Yet interest has increased over the last few years and 3D printing at home has become more of a reality. Budget machines appear on crowd funding sites every week offering hobbyists the opportunity to get their hands on printers at a fraction of the original cost allowing people to create things that only a few years ago seemed impossible to do from the comfort of their own desk.
3D printer manufacturing giants 3D Systems famously remarked that in ten years time, they predict 3D printers will be in not just every household but in every room. We will soon trade a trip to the shops for downloading all of our products to a hard drive, making supply chains a thing of the past. Yet we know there are limitations to what we can currently do with 3D printing.
“Usually people will have read something in the paper and then come up with a very unrealistic idea but it’s not their fault its what has been said,” says Nick. “We’re always getting these Daft Punk and Iron Man mask requests very day. Then the cost comes back and it’s going to be anything from £500 to £1000 and actually that’s pretty good value for what they’re requesting. What they’re comparing it to is an off the shelf form when realty what we’re providing is a one off bespoke manufactured item.”
“It’s like saying “here’s a paintbrush set, why don’t you go and paint all of the art for your walls?”
Without better equipping the public with appropriate knowledge about what the technology can currently achieve, it is hardly a surprise to know that the public have been sold on the idea that it is a simple click and print process.
“We have seen a massive wave of second hand consumer 3D printers coming out after Christmas when people find out it’s not just click and print,” says Nick. “Because you have the opportunity it doesn’t mean you will use it.”
This sentiment rings true throughout additive manufacturing services. There is the firm belief that just because the technology is there it does not mean that people are going to go ahead and start producing products at home whether that be because they do not have the right knowledge or simply do not have that desire.
“It’s like saying “here’s a paintbrush set, why don’t you go and paint all of the art for your walls?”,” says Nick. “Well I would rather buy the art for my walls because the people who did the art are better.”
It’s an interesting point and thankfully for 3D print service providers, at the moment looks to be true. The service providers are confident that ‘service’ is the key word that makes them the ideal option for people seeking 3D printed products.
Quality over quantity
Amalgam is another company that strongly believes in the quality of service and with origins in traditional model making they have a rich history of designing and prototyping for various industries.
“Amalgam takes pride in being different,” says Mike Harvey, Director at Amalgam. “Where others provide a service, Amalgam engage with each individual clients projects, working with not for our client to ensure that the end result is the best that our joint efforts can achieve.
“We are not the cheapest, or the quickest – and certainly not the most automated, but we always aim to offer the best value for money, the best level of service and the highest possible overall results. After thirty years in the business we feel we are justified in thinking we are pretty hard to beat!”
Consumer 3D printing is predicted to be in our homes within the next 10 years. That seems a fair while away for huge 3D print providers to be concerned about the impact right now. For now the bureaux are confident that they will stay ahead of the curve even when consumer 3D printing is readily available for just a few hundred Pounds. High end processes like SLS, which 3D Creation Lab says “sets our business aside more than anything,” will keep customers seeking external services.
“We are already 300 times the price of Shapeways,” explains Dave. “If people want a cheap option, they just have to use one of Shapeways or Imakr’s quote services and find it. It is a service. We don’t pool orders, every enquiry is priced and handled individually.”
Craig Vickers, European RP Operations Director at ARRK, has a different approach to the situation. As with any business, if service providers are going to continue to thrive in the industry then they will have to be prepared to keep a close watch on trends within the market and evolve with it. ARRK claim they are ready to adapt and evolve by continuing to look into new processes and applications.
“It is important for us to be very aware and know when it’s time for us to dive in,” explains Craig. “We keep an eye on them all of the time. It is our job to keep an eye on them so we know when it’s time to invest and will selectively invest when it suits our business.”
“If anything rather than detracting from or affecting our business negatively, it's having an opposite effect,”
For now, the domestic market is not such a concern for major service providers but there is another wave of interest from various businesses investing in their own 3D printing equipment meaning they can develop their own prototypes and eliminate the need to outsource. In order to do this successfully, businesses need to be able to carry out the whole process from 3D software to selecting the right hardware and materials. 3D Creation Lab reckons that most companies they deal with who have attempted the process themselves have actually reverted to coming back to them because they are not getting the same results.
However, even success stories for a number of those small business have had a positive impact on 3D print services that can turn their prototypes into fully functioning parts with added value services.
“If anything rather than detracting from or affecting our business negatively, it's having an opposite effect,” says Craig. “What we’re finding is that they have fairly quickly started to realise the limitations of a £1000 machine for instance. So they find the prototype they have isn’t quite capable of giving them what they would really like it to do but they still have the hunger. Now they know that they would benefit from a prototype like that they come to us.”
The standard of desktop and consumer machines is improving massively as is the understanding that is essential to the progression of the technology. Yet the service providers are not so sure the understanding is quite there yet. 3D Creation Lab says that the hype is not a fair representation of what people actually know with even large international companies failing to research the technology properly. Without this, they reckon it will be difficult for the technology to progress.
“Big names are looking into it but they don’t fully understand it,” says Dave. “When you can’t explain to big companies that there hasn’t actually been a 3D printed gun, it’s all a made up thing, it’s difficult.”
Looking to the future
Only time will tell if 3D printing will take of in the way it is supposed to. It’s predicted that medical applications will come first as well as other major industries before it impacts the home market and by that time the quality will have magnified. But has it reached a point where companies are now thinking they need a plan?
“There isn’t one – so confident are we!’ says Dave. “Desktop printers are getting better and better but they will get more expensive and people will question if they need one. We’re not worried.”
Craig adds: “Our plans for 2015 are significant. We have planned very significant growth within the UK and mainland Europe. That will involve investment as well as development in terms of materials, technologies and processes. There will be a lot to talk about in 2015, I have no doubt.”