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Can Print Shops Benefit from 3D Printing?

(June 2016) posted on Wed Jun 08, 2016

Drupa 2016 saw some big innovations.

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By Eileen Fritsch

Until now, the 3D printers at ISA, Graph Expo, and SGIA have been box-like devices that slowly print small models and doodads. That’s about to change, as larger, faster, more versatile 3D-printing devices will make it practical to offer 3D-printing services.

Before determining what types of services to offer, you must first understand that 3D printing isn’t really about “printing.”

In his book, “3D Printing Will Rock the World,” intellectual property attorney John Hornick explains why 3D printing may become one of the most disruptive technologies in human history. He cites dozens of ways it’s revolutionizing manufacturing, healthcare, architecture, and design. In addition to triggering businesses, products, and jobs we can’t yet imagine, Hornick says 3D printing will raise complex issues for brand owners, law enforcement agencies, and governments.

Like 2D printing, 3D printing is a catch-all phrase for many different processes. While some 3D printers use “jetting” technologies that have evolved from inkjet printing, many use processes that aren’t like printing at all. For example, devices that use direct and selective laser sintering melt metal powder to form the object.

Over the next 20 years, thousands of different types and sizes of 3D printers may be developed. The goal is to take 3D printing beyond modeling and rapid prototyping and bring it into the vast realm of product manufacturing. Students currently experimenting with 3D printers in classrooms may grow up believing that 3D printing is the most efficient, least wasteful method of making things.

For product manufacturing, there won’t be a one-size-fits-all printer. Smaller printers will be used in homes, garages, schools, and libraries. Service bureaus and corporations will use bigger, faster, professional-grade 3D printers that can work with a variety of materials. Manufacturers will use industrial-grade 3D printers that print metals, electronics, or highly specialized materials. Healthcare organizations will use “bio-printing” materials to make replacement organs or prosthetics.

What Role Will Print Shops Play?

Hundreds of 3D-printing service bureaus already exist, Hornick says. Some are traditional machine shops that have added 3D printers to their capabilities. Other “fab labs” are focused entirely on 3D printing and have been doing rapid prototyping for years. Most 3D-printing bureaus serve local companies, because 3D printing makes it possible to manufacture parts close to where they will be used.