The topic of 3D printing has been on the rise for several years. Even if there is not much overlap with the classic printing industry, there could be synergies. Should print shops jump on the 3D bandwagon, or do the necessary investments exceed the benefits?
3D printing, that sounds very decidedly like the printing industry at first. After all, printing is printing, isn’t it? Everyone who knows a little bit about the industry knows that this is not the case. In 3D printing, completely different technologies and principles are used than in classic printing: Here, no surface is provided with paint, but rather a model is cast layer by layer. In specialist circles, the term additive manufacturing (AM) is used rather than the popular term 3D printing. In each work step, a layer is added, so to speak. Another crucial difference is mass production: While modern print shops work with large quantities, 3D printing tends to focus more on the individual product. 3D printing is used in the classic printing industry, if at all, for refinement. The application of a further layer is already familiar here, for example, from foils, embossing and varnishes.
This is where one of the first synergies presents itself: Mass customization and individual configurations are not only trend-setting in the print industry. The 3D printing industry has also discovered the trend for itself – and made it its central marketing element. In addition to shoes, sunglasses and three-dimensional desk figurines made in one’s own image, there are now even printed houses; the first house from a 3D printer was recently completed in Germany. The process is not yet economically viable, but in a few years it should be cheaper to build a house than by conventional methods.
Although the printing industry continues to focus on mass customization, it has so far tended to burn its fingers in the 3D sector. When the topic slowly gained momentum a few years ago, the first print shops took notice: with 3D printing beginning at run length 1, Flyeralarm entered the market a few years ago – and exited again through the back door. Currently, the largest online printer in the German-speaking region no longer offers 3D printing. The situation is similar for other competitors, some of whom even wanted to use the new technology for themselves before the top dog did.
So far, the hype continues to be limited because of these experiences. By contrast, the synergies that could arise in the customer base are still tempting: Those who are used to personalizing their products are certainly not averse to new technologies behind them. Companies with a corresponding clientele and market presence could cultivate a suitable mindset. The way print companies and their customers come together is similar for all companies in the cloud economy in any case: web-to-print works not only in 2D, but also three-dimensionally. Even if the big breakthrough is not yet here, the industry is experimenting, not least because of these prospects.
Nevertheless, it is not to be expected that all print shops will soon have 3D printing in their portfolio. A 3D printer is not just another machine in the fleet that connects to the main computer with a LAN cable and then injects its plastic and metal creations into the mold at the push of a button. Unfortunately, most prepress shops are currently completely overwhelmed with the data preparation and modeling that are essential for 3D printing. Computing and manpower, which are necessary with every technology change and system integration, are being stretched quite intensively here. For most printers, 3D printing is a completely new technology that can’t be squeezed into a day-to-day operation. On top of that, no normal print shop is clean enough for a 3D printer to operate undisturbed. The printing industry is changing all the time, so perhaps there will soon be enough for a proper clean room…