Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Create More … Design Process Improvement in 2012

Two weeks ago, I summarized preliminary 2011 results and commented on industry trends for 3D printing in the AEC community.  Final results exceeded expectations – ZPrinter business in the AEC vertical market grew more than 30% in units and 50% in revenues year-over-year.  Now, let’s take a peek into the crystal ball for 2012.

Based on a stronger than expected finish in 2011, I will go out on a limb to predict that this year will see many more AEC firms diving into 3D printing to improve/accelerate their design process.  This will happen in two ways. First, those firms that are bouncing back from the recession, and have always wanted their own 3D printer, will finally make the investment they could not justify during the past two years.  What evidence do I have for this prediction?  Z Corp. had a 40% increase in new AEC customers last year compared to the prior year.  These new users were not the typical ‘starchitects’ that adopted 3D printing in the past, but rather small-to-medium sized firms that are trying to differentiate themselves from regional and national competitors.  Half of these new customers are from North America, which should lead the growth in 2012.

The second way that AEC firms will invest in 3D printing will be through service bureaus on a project-by-project basis.  There are service bureaus all over the world that specialize in architectural models.  Savvy designers will use their services to print models which will help them collaborate on project teams.  Once the clients, principals, and other project participants see the value of 3D printed models during the design process, these firms will move into the first category described above.

Other thoughts for 2012 …

The first release of the new AMF 3D printing export standard should have some positive impact for 3D printing as a whole, but will not be really felt until the content creators (i.e. the CAD/BIM suppliers) add this feature to their design software products.  Many developers are already finished with their 2012 feature enhancements, so we may not see the AMF export option appear in popular design software until calendar 2013.  For those nimble software developers who support AMF early on, their users will benefit by having color, texture, and material properties exported along with their design geometry.

Bigger is better – the trend toward larger build sizes will continue in 2012 as more users migrate toward bigger 3D printers.  In 2011, more than half of all ZPrinters shipped to AEC customers were ZPrinter model 650 [15x10x8 inches build size].  The press likes to talk about low-end inexpensive printers, but the fact is that real production work is trending in the other direction.  Larger build size has two benefits:  scale model size can be increased without splitting pieces; and more design iterations can be printed in one job which increases throughput and helps enable innovation.

More “shelf space” – with Z Corp now part of 3D Systems, the reseller community has the potential to grow dramatically.  This means that more companies will be serviced by more local resellers and 3D printing professionals.  Those of us in the business are always amazed when we go to industry events and talk to people who have never seen a 3D printer.  The fact is that even though this type of technology has been around for 20+ years, many folks (especially in AEC) are just hearing about it.  Having more authorized representatives out in the trenches will move 3D printing from the aisle shelves to the end displays.

Wishing all of our readers a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year!