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At the recent Intel Solutions Summit 2013 in Los Angeles, the partner event's solution showcase had many of the sleek, cutting-edge products that solution providers and consumers alike have come to expect from the chip maker: next-generation Ultrabooks, tablets, digital signage, and PCs with motion controls.
But hidden among the hot mobile devices and high-end data center products was a curious-looking contraption that seemed more like a high-school science project than an IT solution. A Microsoft Xbox Kinect camera sat atop a hollow, plain-looking aluminum chassis with a "Caution -- Hot" warning engraved in the side.
But it wasn't a science project -- it was an Intel-powered 3-D printer. This particular model was hooked up to an Xbox Kinect camera, which Intel employees were using to scan various attendees on the exhibit floor to demonstrate 3-D printing technology. After the Kinect camera captured a scan of a person, it sent the image to the 3-D printer, which then re-created the person in the form of a small wax figurine. At the demo station, a menagerie of solution provider figurines were just standing around.
A 3-D printing unit may be able to churn out replicas of solution providers, but can the technology attract actual ones? That's the big question surrounding 3-D printing, which has become a source of controversy over concerns about individuals using the technology to create firearms.
Technically speaking, a 3-D printer isn't a printer; the technology manufactures replicas of three-dimensional objects using plastic, metal or other materials depending on the type of 3-D printer. The technology first gained notoriety about two years ago when 3-D printing vendor MakeBot made a splash as CES 2011 with its "Thing-O-Matic" product demonstrations.
Now the technology appears to be gaining traction. Staples made headlines this month by proclaiming itself as the first major U.S. retailer to sell 3-D printers; the company will begin selling 3-D Systems Cube printers for $1,299.99 online and in a limited number of Staples stores starting in June.
That may seem like a high price tag, but leading 3-D printer vendors make commercial-level systems that cost anywhere from $10,000 to much, much more (Stratasys, for example, sells a $400,000 3-D production system).
High prices aside, at least one distributor is taking a close look at 3-D printing. "It's very interesting technology," said Jeff Davis, senior vice president of sales at D&H Distributing, Harrisburg, Pa. "It's a little concerning that you can make a gun with a 3-D printer, but I do think it has applications, especially for small businesses. You can use the technology to generate replacement parts for plastic products, for example."
But do solution providers think there is business potential for this technology?
NEXT: The 3-D Printing Opportunity For The Channel