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

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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."



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