3D’s Place in Commercial Printing

An interview with VDMA's Rainer Gebhardt.

Visitors to drupa’s Innovation Park were surprised to see a collection of realistic seashells ranging in size from a half inch to more than 5 feet tall, all 3D printed in a variety of materials ranging from plastic to metal. The unusual display of mollusks (which, as it happens, are known by the appropriate scientific name drupa ricinus) was organized by the Additive Manufacturing Association, a subgroup of VDMA, a German federation for mechanical engineers). The initiative, which now includes about 120 of VDMA’s 3100-plus members, is headed up by Rainer Gebhardt, an engineer who spent 22 years with manroland designing offset printing equipment. We sat down with Gebhardt to discuss the unusual display and the developing role of this technology in the commercial printing industry.

BP: What do you hope to accomplish this week at drupa?

Gebhardt: In Germany, everybody speaks about 3D printing, but we really want to differentiate it and call it additive manufacturing. Our aim is progress for industrial applications and the professional use of 3D printing. The maker market is interesting, and we have to watch it, but our main focus is industrial application and mechanical engineering. We’re not focused on one process or one material, but open to all of the different 3D technologies that exist. I think each has its place and everybody should think about which is right for their application.

So [the mollusk project at drupa] is really an eye-catcher. What we want to communicate here is that 3D is good for marketing, of course, but also to produce parts in a printing machine or things in the press room. And to help convey the completely new and amazing possibilities for [printing] parts that were not possible before. You have to find these special cases because 3D printing is not, in my opinion, the way to produce everything. It’s for special applications.

BP: Is it somewhat contradictory to be drawing a distinction between manufacturing and printing for this technology here – inside the world’s largest printing exposition?

Gebhardt: [laughing] Yes. You have this wide range at the drupa fair with very interesting people who are coming here from [advertising] agencies and printing houses. It’s very important for them to see the wide range of capabilities, but also the differences. You can, for $500, buy a modeling machine, and you can 3D print just to show what is possible. If you take a little bit more money, you can print marketing giveaways. Or, perhaps you want to produce something that is more functional or involves special needs because the item is used for food or something like that, and that’s when other technologies need to be brought in. Additive manufacturing means not only high-end quality but also automated production that fits into industrial processes.

Then, on the other hand, we have the maker community, which is very interesting and very important. In our mind, in order for there to be progress in additive manufacturing, we need a special way to think about construction engineering ideas for products and so on. And this could start with the young people, the makers, who can learn to think 3D.

BP: How do you think that the print service providers who attend drupa might go about entering this market?

Gebhardt: The unusual situation today is that the print shops are afraid. They worry that the business they are doing today and that they have done in the past will not continue. Personally, I think the print market is a very big and stable one at the moment. It’s about $600 billion worldwide. But it isn’t growing the way it did in the past, and print shops have to specialize in applications that are profitable. So they are looking for new business models, new applications, and new possibilities, and 3D printing could be a technology they can add to have better portfolios for marketing services. We’ve had some visitors the past few days who create high-end advertising giveaways, very expensive products that they want the end customers to use in their offices. And they told us this may not happen with something printed in 2D, but if they give them a 3D-printed product that is a little more unusual, they will remember who the supplier was and that they gave them something of more value. And the print shop gets more money for it.

So, I think it’s very interesting to be here at drupa. The suppliers and the machine builders of 3D printing aren’t all here, but the print shops want to know what is possible, and it’s great to see.

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