2D Digital Printing to 3D Additive Manufacturing: Add a New Dimension?
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2D Digital Printing to 3D Additive Manufacturing: Add a New Dimension?

In addition to print providers, manufacturers and distributors that have been associated with 2D digital inkjet printing have been expanding their interests to include 3D digital print.

By Vincent Cahill, Owner, VCE Solutions

Change appears ever present in our own day, impacting and disrupting our technologies and businesses. Digital printing and information technology (IT) have disrupted markets and print providers who have relied on analog printing methods.

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  • IT from the Internet has significantly reduced demand for printed materials that communicate news and information. On the other hand, wide-format digital printing has disrupted wide-format analog printing and created lucrative business opportunities. Commercial printers are replacing their wide-format offset lithography devices with wide-format inkjet devices. Commercial printers are increasingly purchasing fast, digital electro-photographic and inkjet presses for production runs. Screen printers are adopting inkjet wide-format and direct-to-garment (DTG) devices. The change enables commercial printers and screen printers alike to cost effectively satisfy market demand for short and even long print runs, quick turnaround, variable information and customization.

    Print customers are demanding results from the print they buy. They are willing to pay more for print marketing if they can better grab their customer's attention and win his or her loyalty and purchases. Wide-format inkjet, variable information digital printing, and 3D enhancement printing are providing the print impact and solutions that customers want.

    One may wonder what technology will flow down the print business stream next? This article plots a few paths from 2D digital printing to 3D digital additive manufacturing, and one moving in the opposite direction. Then it asks if these courses offer ways for print providers and their suppliers to grow as well as offer prosperity that their customers want, or are they diversions that could end over the falls?

    Something Old, Something New
    The first business model path we address is that of integrating old and new technologies, the way a commercial printer in Virginia refocused its business. In a recent presentation, Jon Budington, President and CEO of Global Printing in Alexandria, Virginia, revealed his formula for success in the disruptively changing printing market. His business strategy first recognized that his company's business was not printing, per se, but designing and developing customer messages and integrating a multitude of means to communicate the message, including print on paper, social media, websites, mobile applications, etc. He emphasized the role of integration as the "baby step to innovation." He, echoing Heraclitus without quoting him, asserted that innovation never stops and always wins; that a business or industry in fighting makes itself smaller, and conversely, innovation equals growth.

    Budington noted that all innovation requires a problem to solve. Computers, the Internet, smart phones and digital printing were all solving problems and expanding users' capabilities. The development of digital information technology reduced customer needs for commercial printing and other forms of print that inform, such as newspaper, magazine, book, business forms, catalog, directory, legal and financial printing. On the other hand, print for packaging, labels, marketing, advertising, signs, POP and exhibit displays and industrial purposes continue to grow. IT has taken market share away from print that informs, while print that performs continues to prosper. Digital technology has spurred the growth of these print sectors because its innovations have improved the efficiency, speed of delivery, and customers' perception of value while reducing print cost.

    After Budington brought his business strategy of integrating print with IT to Global Printing, the company tripled its business while many other commercial printers contracted, consolidated with others or went out of business - so much so that the number of commercial printing establishments declined from over 40,000 in the mid 1990s to about 24,000 in 2013. As Dr. Joe Webb has noted, approximately 2,000 new print business entities start up each year, while about 3,000 close, resulting in a net loss of about 1,000 print and print service businesses in the US each year.

    The second path print companies are using to move toward 3D fabrication is through the intermediary 3D enhancement stage. The recent growth of 3D digital enhancement equipment placements and resulting market successes confirms the trend of print purchasers choosing print impact over price. Scodix and MGI are selling 3D enhancement production presses that add dimensional, embossed, and metallic look and feel to print that grabs attention and improves the viewer's perception of value. Roland offers enhancement on wide format with its LEC LED cure line of printer-cutters. These devices have found application printing and fabricating folding-carton prototypes, samples and custom production. Mimaki offers 3D enhancement capability, primarily for decorating promotional products and smart phone covers. Dainippon Screen offers 3D enhancement with its 2.5-meter (98.4-inch) wide-format Truepress Jet2500UV. It can also print substrates that are as much as 50 millimeters thick (1.9 inches). Direct Color Systems (DCS) offers two narrow-width flat-bed inkjet enhancement printers. Both the Screen and DCS inkjet printers can print Braille that meets ADA standards of 0.6-millimeter to 0.9-millimter dot height. DCS has promoted its Direct Jet 1024UVMVP and 1024UVHS LED UV inkjet devices for 2D and 3D enhancement printing to sign and promotional product providers. They can print substrate up to 152 millimeters (6 inches) thick, thus offering base relief and embossed effects on products and assembled box packaging and product displays. The next step for 3D enhancement is its inclusion of 3D-printed functions, such as RFID tags, electronics, sensors, photovoltaics and batteries.

    The third path to digital 3D leads us to sign and display graphics providers. Many sign and display shops have already adopted computer numeric control (CNC) routing devices for making dimensional lettering, signs and displays. This digitally controlled subtractive method produces considerable material waste, while 3D additive manufacturing methods yield minimal waste. The skill sets and software for creating designs and files to run CNC devices are very similar to those for 3D additive manufacturing. Many sign customers are also becoming customers for 3D. For example, architects often specify the signage for their projects. They also buy 3D subtractive and additive model renderings to illustrate their building projects. Theatrical companies who contract sign makers to print backdrops are also are customers for 3D generated theatrical props.

    A fourth course into digital 3D is a very direct one. Digital 3D fabrication service bureaus have popped up over the past decade and have attracted customers and prospered. Architects have employed 3D service bureaus for making their project models. Surgeons and their medical teams have used them to fabricate models of patients' body parts from MRI images. This enables surgeons to test procedures before cutting into a patient and often negates the need for exploratory surgery. The aerospace and automotive industries have also employed 3D service bureaus when contracting for models of their designs and to test the fit of their component parts. GE Aviation had employed a service bureau in suburban Cincinnati, Ohio to use 3D additive manufacturing technology to build and develop the company's next generation LEAP jet engines. Jewelry designers and manufacturers are using 3D bureaus to fabricate their designs in hot-melt materials for making lost wax models for creating their casting investments. Product designers are employing 3D bureaus for making their fit and functional prototype models. Toy manufactures, the US Military, machinists, artists and others are employing 3D service bureaus for making models, prototypes and products. Law firms are also using 3D AM from service bureaus to illustrate and demonstrate aspects of their case to judges and juries. Some of these service bureaus grew from print service bureaus. Many can provide both 2D digital prints as well as 3D models and prototypes.

    VCE Solutions Group, recently surveyed over three-dozen 3D service bureaus and discovered that they have all grown, were very busy and profitable. We did not discover that any of those we selected were failing or ready to retire. Many offered subtractive CNC capabilities and services in addition to additive prototyping and manufacturing. Almost all offer multiple 3D print platforms, including stereolithography (SLA), selective laser sintering (SLS), selective laser melting (SLM), fused deposition modeling (FDM), inkjet direct polymer deposit, inkjet powder printing and more. Service bureaus offer artists, product designers and their companies a relatively inexpensive way to develop prototypes and models without having to invest in 3D fabricating equipment.

    A fifth path for companies that use 3D service bureaus is to bring all or part of their 3D additive manufacturing in-house. This is what GE did when it purchased Morris Technologies and its sister company Rapid Quality Manufacturing in November 2012 and appointed Greg Morris, its former owner, as its General Manager for Additive Technologies. In July 2014, GE Aviation opened a facility in Auburn, Alabama, employing 300 people to use the Additive Manufacturing processes that Morris Technologies developed to mass-produce jet engine parts. As companies move from making prototypes to full-scale production using 3D additive manufacturing technology, investing in the equipment they will be using daily makes strategic and economic sense.

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    Dr. Dene Taylor, fellow associate in the Solutions Group, suggests a sixth way for print providers to enter the 3D market. He recommends that those selling print ask their customers if they want and need 3D AM output. If their customers answer yes, and the print sellers' companies do not have the equipment to meet the customer 3D requirements and do not want to invest in it then, print sellers can use service bureaus that do have the necessary equipment. They would thereby service their customers so that they do not start looking for another print provider with the 3D capability they require.

    Going 3D
    In addition to print providers, manufacturers and distributors that have been associated with 2D digital inkjet printing have been expanding their interests to include 3D digital print. Konica Minolta (KM) is now distributing 3D printers from 3D Systems. In January 2014, Konica Minolta acquired a 10 percent ownership stake in MGI. The two companies reportedly have had a collaborative relationship for over a decade. MGI uses Konica Minolta inkjet print heads in its JETvarnish 3D and JETcard 3D enhancement printers. MGI also owns Ceradrop that manufactures inkjet systems for printing electronics, photovoltaics and 3D items, for which it offers KM piezo inkjet (PIJ) heads in addition to heads from other PIJ head providers. Ricoh supplies Stratasys with its hot-melt inkjet print head for Objet 3D printers. Ricoh also supplies its heads for the 3D Systems Projet 4500. Xerox provides its hot-melt inkjet heads to 3D Systems for use with its Projet 3500, 3510, 5000, and 5500X series printers. Ricoh provides Mimaki with a unique version of its Gen5 print head and Mimaki in turn supplies Ricoh with Ricoh branded versions of Mimaki wide-format printers. Mimaki uses the Ricoh Gen4 PIJ heads for its UJF series devices that can provide 3D enhancement for promotional products and small items such as mobile phone covers. Fujifilm Dimatix supplies its Q-class PIJ print heads to ExOne for its metal and casting mold 3D AM systems. It also has supplied its DMP devices and line of PIJ heads for the fabrication of printed electronics, photovoltaics, sensors and 3D AM.

    On the other hand, Guy Gecht, CEO of EFI, recently indicated that his company is concentrating on 2D graphic arts and print software solutions and does not plan to offer solutions for 3D enhancement or 3D fabrication anytime soon. On February 5, 2014, Michael Molitch-Hou stated that, "In a recent interview outlining the company's Q4 profits, EFI CEO, Guy Gecht, hinted that the company may take its success from the 2D world and apply it to the third dimension." He wrote that, "Gecht implied that the company may bring their productivity software to the 3D world." But the workflow that the Fiery software addresses typically involves managing hundreds to thousands of pages per hour per press or printer, while 3D printers produce fewer than one to a few items per hour. On the other hand, 3D devices print many layers per hour, each one usually somewhat different from the others. Each layer can require considerable computer memory and conversion of image files to rasters, a Fiery strength.

    Combining Forces
    Integrating existing analog print technologies with IT, digital 2D print, 3D enhancement and even 3D additive prototyping and manufacturing uses the advantages of each technology to address customer needs and solve customer problems.

    3D low relief enhancement provides a bridge from 2D image printing to digital 3D prototyping and production. As the packaging and display industries continue to discover the market strengths of low relief and embossed digital decoration, providers of digital 3D enhancement are seeing their business and profitability grow. 3D enhancement also provides an avenue to 3D fabrication as 3D enhancement packaging expands to perform functions and incorporate printed sensors and other printed electronics.

    Sign makers, particularly those operating CNC routing devices, have the basic skills and often the business contacts to function and succeed with 3D Additive Manufacturing. Digital 3D can add dimension and create objects that grab attention. With Additive Manufacturing tools, sign makers and display houses can expand their offering with high value items.

    Service Bureaus supplying 3D prototyping and models have prospered as customers discover them and the cost and time savings associated with 3D rapid prototyping and additive manufacturing. It reduced the time and expense of getting a product to market. In addition, print sellers can use service bureaus to satisfy their customers' needs without incurring the capital cost, risk and learning curve associated with acquiring new and costly technology.

    As companies discover how 3D additive manufacturing can provide cost effective production solutions, they have begun bringing 3D fabricating equipment in house.

    OEM manufacturers are beginning to provide their resources and strengths to supply the growing 3D fabrication market. Hewlett Packard (HP) has announced its intentions to provide solutions for 3D additive manufacturing, and unveiled a conceptual industrial design for its first Multi Jet FusionTM 3D printer. It promises an order of magnitude faster production speeds, lower capital and operating costs and higher print quality than similar function 3D print systems currently available. Konica Minolta (KM) is using their alliances with MGI to advance its efforts with 2D and 3D enhancement and with MGI's subsidiary, Ceradrop, with printed electronics and 3D additive manufacturing. KM's print head distributor Industrial Inkjet Ltd (IIJ) is also integrating KM heads on its 2D and 3D print devices. Ricoh has long supplied its PIJ heads to Objet, now Stratasys, for its 3D rapid prototyping devices for many years. It now also provides its heads to 3D Systems for the Projet 4500. Xerox has also provided its high temperature tolerant PIJ heads to 3D Systems for a number of Projet 3D printers. EFI may also be considering adapting its Fiery software to the emerging needs of the 3D fabricators.

    3D additive manufacturing enables the creation of more complex structures without the added expense each machining process incurs. It can also create more complex structures than subtractive machining can manage. The GE Aviation additive manufactured LEAP fuel injector incorporates a complex fuel path that prevents carbon build up, which limits the life of conventional fuel injectors. The LEAP injector lasts five times as long as the conventionally machined injectors and weighs 25 percent less. 3D AM enables designers to do more with less. For the aerospace, automotive and military industries, this capability of 3D AM provides lighter weight parts that are as strong or stronger than the conventionally fabricated ones they replace resulting in lower fuel costs. Since many 3D AM parts, like the LEAP fuel injector, are made as one piece, manufacturers also can save the cost associated with assembling many parts.

    A major driver for adopting 3D AM methods is its ability to reduce waste and weight without compromising strength. The sustainability and energy technology revolution is fast upon us. Makers of printed electronics and photovoltaic solar cells are already using digital 3D fabrication methods.

    The six print-provider paths, the growing OEM interest in supplying the needs of this growing industry, and the economic and environmental challenges we face promise that 3D fabrication will not only prosper where it is today, but will expand to enlist 2D print providers and others.

    Vince Cahill, President of VCE Solutions, provides consulting services for Fortune 500 and other companies operating in the analog and digital printing industries. He has also served as a Principal in The Colorworks, where he has a 25-plus year career in specialty graphics. Previously, Cahill served as CEO of Datametrics Corp. as well as Principal and Technology Developer for Newhill Technologies and GDI, which are devoted to digital printings applications. He is a longtime volunteer with SGIA, serving on the Association's Textile Committee for several years. Cahill has contributed several articles to the SGIA Journal.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, September/October 2014 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2014 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (www.sgia.org). All Rights Reserved.

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