One of the key aims of the companies exhibiting at the TCT-sponsored 3D Printing TechZone at International CES 2014 is to capture the imagination of the general public - ordinary people with no design, 'maker' or other technical background.
It is this wider audience all the major 3D printing industry players have been trying to tap into for years - with competition growing ever more fierce with a new desktop or push-button promise being made almost by the week. Utah-based WhiteClouds' mission statement is to bring 3D printing to the masses and believes its web offering could be the key that finally unlocks the technology for the public. TCT Magazine spoke to CEO Jerry Ropelato about what his exciting business strategy involves and what he believes is the 3D printing industry's perceived trajectory.
Ropelato is a busy man with a solid background in technology spanning three decades. As the CEO and founder of TechMediaNetwork he and the company's editors have fingers in pies such as LiveScience, TechNewsDaily and BusinessNewsDaily, but his foray into 3D printing, he says, is relatively recent.
"I've been intrigued by 3D printing for a number of years now and I took the opportunity to start WhiteClouds eight months ago, which is all things 3D printing," Ropelato explained. "We have 21 full-time people and seven part-timers. For a company that really hasn't got out of the gate yet, we’ve invested heavily in this."
Ropelato explained that the name WhiteClouds represents how the company sees 3D printing: as a creativity revolution allowing people - ordinary people - to free their ideas and make them into something real.
"That's when the industry exploded"
"I really believe that 3D printing today is exactly where the computer industry was in the late '70s. Then, you had the big iron manufacturers, the IBMs, the Honeywells, the Hewlett Packards that have been around for 30 or more years and what came along was a little thing called the personal computer. Microsoft. Apple. That is when the industry really exploded and it's the same with 3D printing.
"In this industry, you have the big iron manufacturers - Stratasys, 3D Systems - but really, because of the MakerBots and the consumer models coming out over the last few years, the industry is really picking up and I think the masses are still trying to figure out what this is all about. So while it's not that good today, just like it was back in the late '70s and early '80s, there's a lot of work that's still got to be done to put it in the hands of the masses. Sure the makers and early adopters have worked for themselves, but not form the masses. I don't think it's there yet. I don't think the hardware is there yet," Ropelato mused.
The CEO believes WhiteClouds will help in the industry's mission to harness the general public's interest as a 3D printing community that has been made for them - the ordinary people - and not the 'makers' or 3D designers who already have some knowledge of how the technology works.
"We will be announcing the launch of our website in a couple of weeks," Ropelato said. "We're doing a soft launch in a few days. It's a complex site that will have over 7,300 pages of content and 3D printables. It'll be different from anything that's out there today.
"Our goal is really to help the masses. We've been really involved in the technology and the science and trying to communicate with the masses and not necessarily just the 'geeks' and that's what we're about. How do we get 3D printing to the masses?"
A new audience
Ropelato and his WhiteClouds creation intend to answer this question by giving the public access to a myriad of 'how to' files and content covering every aspect of 3D printing and every industry the technology reaches. But is WhiteClouds a potential rival to virtual communities and marketplaces like RepRap, Sculpteo, Shapeways and i.Materialise?
"I really don't think so," said Ropelato. "If I had to make a comparison, I would say we're like a cross between Shapeways and howstuffworks.com. We will be going after the masses as opposed to Shapeways' and Sculpteo's customer base and others like that. I think they're really focused on the 'maker' community, the designer community and people who are good at CAD. We're really going after the masses, so an audience that is still very new to this and so our goal is to help them take their creativity and their imagination and move that into physical objects."
Despite claiming to be an "outsider in the 3D printing industry" and professing to be very new to this emerging technology, Ropelato and the WhiteClouds team own 10 professional-quality 3D printers.
"We own a Connex 500 and ProJets and we've got some big Fortus machines. My personal favourite - because I love the creativity of the colours - is the ProJet 660. It's a lot of fun and our guys really enjoy printing on that. One of our favourite products that we'll be launching is 60 different types of skull that you can purchase with some really, really creative colour creations that you've never seen before - our guys had a lot of fun with that."
Through using these machines, Ropelato has made observations that may be familiar to many 3D printer users, the matter of technology not running as smoothly as planned.
"Uptime at 80 per cent seems to be acceptable in this industry. That's got to change. Attitudes and support services have got to change. If they don’t get that fixed then I think new companies will step in and frankly Hewlett Packard with their new announcement next year ... [could] do that. They know how to do customer service so it will be interesting to see what takes place".
Something different and inspirational
So, what can International CES 2014 delegates expect from WhiteClouds, apart from access to a shiny new website about all things 3D printing?
"The stand will be primarily focused on using creativity and your imagination and what can be 3D printed in the future. It will probably be very different from some of the others. Our goal is to inspire people to think into the future," Ropelato mused.
"I probably have a lot of opinions about the industry and where it's headed that are a little different from a lot of people, so I'm always looking for a dialogue with people to discuss the future. We've spent the last eight months doing a lot of research and development on unique products and product service offerings and that will all be on our website when we go live.
"[WhiteClouds is] different from anything that's out there today - maybe we'll have success, maybe we'll fall on our faces but we'll learn that very quickly."