3-D Printing: If It's Just A Fad, Why Is One VAR Drawing In Clients?

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.

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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

Karl Volkman, chief technology officer at SRV Network, a Chicago-based solution provider, thinks 3-D printing technology is compelling but doesn't feel 3-D printers are ready for prime time in the channel.

"It's a novelty right now. I don't see it as a big market just yet," Volkman said. "There could be applications in specific markets for niche production needs. But the big question is, how does the cost of buying a $5,000 3-D printer compare to the cost of having a few plastic parts replaced?"

There are more than just cost issues, Volkman said. "You also have to be careful about the materials," he said. "Is the plastic the printer is using the same composition and strength as the original part?"

Ron Robinson, however, believes 3-D printing is already a big business. As the owner of Atlanta-based IT Data Storage, Robinson saw so much potential in 3-D printing that he spun off a new solution provider business called 3DCAD Printer Inc., which concentrates on 3-D printing solutions for engineering, military and education clients.

"I started looking at 3-D printing about a year ago," he said. "It's gone so well that I'll be focusing most of my time going forward on 3DCAD instead of IT Data Storage."

For example, Robinson recently sold printers from both Stratasys and 3D Systems to a government contractor, which will use the 3-D printers to manufacture plastic parts and components in remote areas such as Antarctica, where it can take weeks or longer to get replacements.

And while the 3-D printing units can be expensive, Robinson makes a 30 percent profit margin on $20,000 to $30,000 systems. He also expects the market to open up more. "The prices are starting to come way down," Robinson said. "I think some of the $10,000 models we've seen this year will come down to around $4,000 by next year."

And as excited as Robinson is about 3-D printing, he sees even more potential in 3-D scanning. Instead of placing an object inside the actual 3-D printer, a scanning device uses lasers to re-create three-dimensional models of larger objects -- similar to what the Xbox Kinect camera did for Intel's demo unit -- which can then be reproduced with 3-D printers.

"With 3-D scanning, you can capture a 3-D CAD [computer-aided design] image of, say, a helicopter and save it so in 10 years, when the manufacturer wants to produce replacements parts, you won't need the original blueprints or manufacturing equipment. You just call up the 3-D scan and send it to the printer," Robinson said. "3-D scanners are going to be even bigger than 3-D printers. It's exciting stuff."