3-D printing: The next desktop revolution

I suspect there are more than a few readers who remember how printing and publishing changed dramatically in the 1980s as desktop computers and print-ready files displaced phototypesetters and camera-ready artwork. Many of us went from the hazards of darkroom chemistry to that of workstation ergonomics; I remember being unceremoniously lifted from the comfort of my paste-up boards, horizontal camera and film processor and dropped into the world of SyQuest disks, Apple system “bombs” and PostScript (infinite-loop) errors.

Steve Jobs Press Conference January 23 1985
Steve Jobs at the press conference where the first desktop publishing system was announced on January 23, 1985.

Actually, the birth of desktop publishing (a term coined by Paul Brainerd of Aldus Corporation) and its disruptive impact can be traced to a specific date. On January 23, 1985, at a press conference following an annual stockholder’s meeting of Apple Computer, Steve Jobs announced the first desktop publishing system. It consisted of the following component technologies:

  • Personal computer (Apple Macintosh)
  • Page layout software (Aldus PageMaker)
  • Laser printer (Canon/Apple LaserWriter)
  • Page description language (Adobe PostScript)

It is safe to say that few understood the meaning of what happened that day. For the first time, text and graphics were placed on a page simultaneously and imaged on paper as reproduction “copy” or as a final printed sheet. The breakthrough of desktop publishing was that it was possible for just about anyone—with a modest investment—to become a publisher. The full impact of desktop publishing would be realized over the next decade as it transformed several industries and was a significant element in the evolution of the World Wide Web.

Chris Anderson MakersWith the benefit of hindsight, Chris Anderson (author of The Long Tail and former editor of Wired magazine) discusses the long-term implications of the desktop phenomenon in his book Makers: The New Industrial Revolution. “Remember, at that time publishing used to mean manufacturing in every sense of the word, from the railways that brought huge rolls of paper and barrels of ink to the printing plant … Taking publishing out of the factories liberated it. But the real impact of this was not in paper, but in the idea of ‘publishing’ online. Once people were given the power of the press, they wanted to do more than print out newsletters. So, when the web arrived, ‘publishing’ became ‘posting’ and they could reach the world.”

Today Anderson believes that we are living through a similar paradigm shift. But this time it is in the world of physical objects and the making of things. Today’s Maker Movement—the design and manufacture of things by individuals instead of industrial corporations—is with personal computers, CAD software and desktop 3-D printers and other equipment like laser cutters and CNC machines.

Form 1 desktop 3-D printer
Desktop 3-D printers take geometric data from CAD software and fabricate objects out of liquid plastic or resin

Distinct from the desktop printers that produce 2-D black and white or full color images on sheets of paper, a 3-D printer uses electronic geometries and turns them into objects that you can pick up and hold in your hand. Desktop 3-D printers usually extrude molten plastic in layers of liquid or powder resin. They can typically put down plastic material in thin layers (.33 of a millimeter) in processes like fusion deposition modeling (FDM), stereo lithography (SLA) or selective laser sintering (SLS).

3-D printers are an “additive” manufacturing technology; they build up objects from nothing, layer by layer. This is distinct from older industrial techniques—like “subtractive” routers and mills—in which spinning raw material is cut or ground away to reveal the object. Although they are newer and undergoing rapid development, additive 3-D printers have the advantage of producing little or no waste in the production process.

3D Print Sales Chart
Market size by 3-D printing sector application in US$ million

According to a recent report by IDTechEx, large-scale 3-D printing surpassed revenues of $1 billion in 2012 and growth is expected to quadruple by 2025. Industries that are heavy users of 3-D printing technologies are medical and dental, automotive and aerospace. The promise of the 3-D print is that it opens up inexpensive variability and complexity to the mass manufacturing process. For example, 3-D print used in the manufacture of prosthetics and orthopedic implants makes possible mass customization based on patient CT or MRI scan data.

Some believe—including Chris Anderson—that the digital Do-It-Yourself (DIY) and Maker Movement are generating a much bigger market than that of the large-scale commercial applications. The aggregate value of the design and manufacture of entirely custom products in medium to small (or even single) quantities is potentially greater than the manufacture of mass consumer products where each item is identical.

This is a business concept that everyone in the printing industry is very familiar with. We have been dealing with the economics of the digital print for two decades and understand very well that the cost per unit of a digital print product (custom) versus conventional offset printing (mass production). The cost per unit in digital print is “flat,” i.e. it do not rise or fall based upon a decrease or increase in quantity or a change in complexity, whereas the cost of the setup (make-ready) of a traditional offset print project is amortized across the entire print run.

The relationship between the cost per unit and the quantity of mass manufacturing (injection molding) versus digital fabrication (3-D printing).

Anderson explains it this way, “Digital fabrication inverts the economics of traditional manufacturing. In mass production, most of the costs are in up-front tooling, and the more complicated the product is and the more changes you make, the more it costs. But with digital fabrication, it’s the reverse: the things that are expensive in traditional manufacturing become free.”

We can rightfully question Chris Anderson’s assertion that digital desktop fabrication heralds the beginning of new industrial revolution on the magnitude of that which occurred in the nineteenth century. However, there is no doubting his commitment. Anderson recently left his position after more than ten years as editor of Wired magazine to become full-time CEO of the firm he founded called 3D Robotics that manufactures unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

As we think about the meaning of 3-D printing technology today, it is important to reflect back upon the desktop revolution of the 1980s. We should recall that many in the publishing industry viewed the nascent desktop system—inspired by Steve Jobs of Apple, Paul Brainerd of Aldus and Chuck Geschke and John Warnock of Adobe—as not measuring up to the professional requirements of the day. Many who initially dismissed desktop publishing as a fad and resisted the transition away from mechanical graphic arts technologies would later live to regret that perception.

The promise of 3-D printing is significant. Perhaps Chris Anderson will not be alone in the migration from the printing and publishing industries to that of digital fabrication, DIY manufacturing and the Maker Movement.

Graph Expo & DMA2012: A tale of two shows

Both the premiere print trade show and the top direct marketing conference were held in October this year. I had the fortunate opportunity to attend these two shows back to back: Graph Expo in Chicago on October 7-10 and DMA2012 in Las Vegas on October 13-18. As I walked the exhibit spaces and attended meetings, presentations and other gatherings, I saw important similarities and differences between these two events. Each in their own way illustrated how the graphic arts and direct marketing industries are being impacted by digital, social and mobile media technologies. They also revealed the complexities and difficulties facing every organization in our era of data-driven marketing and communications.

The mood among presenters, exhibitors and attendees at both shows was one of cautious optimism. The ongoing perfect storm of economic downturn combined with rapid technological change was on everyone’s mind. Both shows were devoted to providing answers and solutions to the pressing problem of the day; how can business owners and decision makers achieve success by more effectively serving client needs.

One way to compare these events is to look at the numbers. Since the figures for the 2012 shows have not yet been published, I will use the numbers from last year:

Event              Attendees      Exhibitors    Conf. Sessions
Graph Expo      20,000+          490+            50+
DMA2011         8,500+           350+            200+

With an emphasis on technology demonstration, Graph Expo is primarily about the equipment needed to accomplish marketing and communications objectives. And with an emphasis on conference sessions, DMA2012 (Direct Marketing Association) is focused on programs that educate and inform its audience about the processes needed to prepare and analyze initiatives. GraphExpo is for service companies that buy systems for the execution of programs. DMA2012 is for marketing companies that buy tools and solutions for the conceptualization of programs. Taken together, the two represent a continuum of the entire marketing and communications loop; where the one ends the other picks up.

These characteristics can also be seen by the way the event organizers describe themselves to their audience:

Graph Expo: “Graph Expo is the year’s largest and most exciting display of ‘live’ running equipment in the Americas. Watching a machine run and participating in a demonstration teaches you things you just can’t learn by sitting in a conference room or looking at a brochure. This show is a problem-solving adventure designed to help you make informed purchasing decisions.”

DMA20212: “The content at DMA2012 will deliver real-world solutions you can use immediately, as well as strategic guidance to help you plan for 2013. You’ll find an inspiring line-up of key thought leaders and innovators from the world’s leading companies. These gurus will educate and inform you on the latest trends:

  • optimizing content across channels
  • monetizing social media
  • integrating media according to customer preference
  • leveraging real-time analytics for daily decision making”

I arrived at Graph Expo on Sunday, October 7 and entered the expo floor when it opened at noon. Along with everyone else, I noticed immediately the prominence of the manufacturers of digital printing technologies, as was the case in last year’s show. Canon, Xerox, HP, Fuji, Kodak and others have taken over the largest booths in the show. In previous years, these booths were occupied by Heidelberg, KBA, Komori and Mitsubishi. Although Heidelberg stood out by having a large space with many machines on display, gone are the days of GraphExpo as a showcase of large and loud offset printing machinery.

Benny Landa speaking at the InfoTrends breakfast at GraphExpo

On Monday morning October 8, I attended an InfoTrends breakfast meeting that featured a talk by Benny Landa, the inventor of digital printing (he launched the Indigo press in 1993). Landa spoke about what he called the “economic depression of the printing industry.” As he reviewed the new printing technique his company has developed (nanography), he explained that the “98% of the printing being done today” is static, non-variable data printing. Since much of this printing is not profitable, it means that printing companies are unable to invest in new technologies.

Chris Anderson delivering the opening keynote at DMA2012

My visit to the DMA2012 Conference began by attending the opening keynote on Monday, October 15. The featured speaker was Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine and author of the business book “The Long Tail.” Anderson spoke about the implications of “big data” for marketing organizations. Big data is the ever-growing mountain of information about our lives; companies like Google and Facebook are accumulating big data about our online and offline activities, preferences and habits. The challenge facing marketers is how best to use this information since it is not structured and does lend itself to traditional analytical tools and methods. Anderson said that big data is a challenge to traditional marketing models.

From this brief report, it is evident that we are passing through an exciting time in our industry; we are well into the transition from the traditional, analog world of yesterday to the data-driven, digital world of tomorrow. However, the path forward is not obvious; marketing organizations and their service providers are facing a multiplicity of challenges. Among the keys to success in this rapidly shifting environment is taking advantage of events like Graph Expo and DMA2012. In this way, we can grasp the fundamental trends of development, learn from our peers and prepare our own organizations to meet the new demands of our clients.

DRUPA 2012: A report from afar

Like most people in our graphic arts community, I was unable to attend the international printing and paper expo—DRUPA 2012—in Düsseldorf, Germany this year. The trade show, which is held every four years, took place May 3-16 at the Düsseldorf Fair Grounds. DRUPA—a contraction of the German words for printing (druck) and paper (papier)—is by far the biggest and most important printing industry event in the world. This year the exhibits covered 1.7 million square feet of floor space and were on display in a total of 17 halls.

Having attended the expo twice in the past, I was very keen to follow the industry news reports—primarily from WhatTheyThink.com—and official DRUPA press releases as they came in each day. However, this year it was also possible for the first time to follow the event from social media streams. Through numerous YouTube and Twitter posts—from exhibiting firms as well as by attendees—it was possible to get a real-time view of what was happening.

Among the most important news from the show came after it was over. DRUPA 2012 saw 314,500 experts from more than 130 countries attend; this was 75,550 less than 2008. “This drop does not come as a surprise for us and the sector as a whole. In Germany alone the printing industry lost some 3,900 operations with over 61,000 employees between 2000 and 2011. In the USA over the same period more than 7,700 printing operations closed,” explained Werner Matthias Dornscheidt, President & CEO of Messe Düsseldorf.

There were other international dynamics in evidence at DRUPA, as the final press release from the show explained. “With more than 190,000 foreign visitors the international focus of DRUPA continues at a very high level. What is striking here is the high number of trade visitors from India, which, now reaching some 15,000, ranks as the second largest visitor nation after Germany (123,000 visitors). Following behind these two in the country ranking is: Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Great Britain, the USA, Switzerland and Italy. It is particularly gratifying to see the rising proportion of visitors from South and Central America (8.8% in 2012 compared to 7% in 2008)—and more specifically from Brazil.”

You can read the DRUPA 2012 Final Press Release here, http://ilnk.me/10708

Moving on to the technology of the show, you can find a summary of all the DRUPA news reports from WTT.com both before and after the show here, http://ilnk.me/1072b

The major developments were clearly in digital printing with various inkjet-printing devices taking center stage.  And the biggest news from DRUPA was the launch by Landa Corporation of a new category of printing called nanography. Benny Landa, the founder and CEO of Landa Corp., is the godfather of the digital printing revolution. After he invented the Indigo press—the first full-color variable data printing device—in 1993, Landa then sold this technology to Hewlett-Packard in 2003.

Landa’s new nanographic technology is distinct from other forms of digital presses in that it does not begin from the business proposition associated with variable data printing. Previous digital printing devices have attempted to compete for marketing and communications dollars based upon the value of personalized content. Nanography, while it offers this capability, more importantly makes a business claim on a substantial spectrum of static print media currently dominated by the offset method.

The DRUPA standing room only crowd at the Landa Nano exhibit

The basic ideas of Landa’s new solution are found in the following excepts from his DRUPA presentation:

“Everything that can become digital will become digital and that includes printing. Since 1993 when we launched it, digital printing has exploded. … And yet, digital printing barely nibbles around the edges of mainstream printing. Only 2% of printed pages are printed digitally. This is why we have invented nanography; for the other 98% …

“I bet there is not one person in this hall that believes that 200 years from now man will communicate by smearing pigment onto crushed trees. The question on everyone’s mind is when will printed media be replaced by digital media. … It will take many decades before printed media is replaced by whatever it will be … many decades is way over the horizon for us and our children. We are concerned about the coming decades and there the question we must ask ourselves is: ‘How can my business prosper as the printing industry transitions from mechanical printing to digital printing to whatever comes next?’ …

“Its all about the other 98%. And where is this 98%? You are already doing it. The trouble is, you can’t make any money from it. … There is no digital printing on the horizon or the foreseeable future that is going replace offset. Offset will be here for as long as we can imagine. … Digital printing was invented to be profitable at a run length of one, but the problem is that digital printing is also unprofitable as run lengths become longer and longer. That has created an enormous gap where neither offset is profitable nor digital is profitable. But that gap is where your customers need to be; short and medium run lengths and they can’t get it with you doing it profitably and that is why we invented nanography.”

The unique proposition of nanography is that it puts down elements of pigment onto any substrate in ultra small particles that measure in nanometers, one billionth of a meter, thus reducing the cost of basic elements of the printed image. The Landa Nano technology has been so impressive that agreements have been signed to license the printing method by Komori, Man Roland and Heidelberg. A summary of the technical and business issues in nanography can be found at the Landa website here: http://ilnk.me/10735

If you have time, you can watch a 47 minute video of the entire Landa presentation, which was standing room only at DRUPA 2012, courtesy of Yair Zafrany, here: http://ilnk.me/1072d

In addition to the excitement around the Landa launch, there were also impressive digital printing presentations made by HP, Xerox and a number of other manufacturers. A summing up of these developments can be found in a YouTube video by industry expert Frank Romano published by Mohawk Fine Paper here: http://ilnk.me/10736

As has been the case in the past, the most important thing about DRUPA is that it is more about where our industry is going than about where it is today. So DRUPA is a kind of time machine that lets us look ahead a bit. It is my hope that the information reported here will at least provide an indication of what to expect this fall at GraphExpo 2012 on October 7-12 in Chicago. Hopefully, more of us will be able to attend that show and then we can compare notes. See you there!