2D Printing in a 3D Printing World

Who do you think of when considering 3D printer vendors? 3D Systems, EOS, Formlabs, Stratasys, Ultimaker? Don’t limit your thinking. Did you know there are 2D printer technology providers involved with 3D printing? 

Canon, GIS, Heidelberg, HP, Konica Minolta, Mimaki, Ricoh, Xaar and Xerox immediately come to mind. Why is that and what does their involvement mean to you?

3D printing got its start through the hard work of innovators such as Scott Crump, Chuck Hull and Hans Langer. Many other innovators and market influencers have played a role over the ensuing 30 years. And innovators still play a critical role – a simple Google Scholar search turns up hundreds of recent articles, use cases and patent applications relating to 3D printing.

Equally important, major hardware, software and material technology providers are innovating. Not just the companies that you can find in any directory of 3D printer vendors. Tech providers from outside the industry are doing more than testing the 3D printing waters. Their involvement not only validates the 3D print market opportunity, but they also provide the significant financial and R&D resources needed to solve the 3D printing conundrum: 

How to provide 3D printed items with consistently high quality in the volumes necessary to satisfy user demand for both new orders and reorders?

To understand how 2D tech providers are influencing the 3D printing market, let’s take a brief look at the six of the 2D tech providers who exhibited at Formnext 2019:

Xerox has more than 200 patents on 3D printing technologies, developed over the course of 20 years. The company retained its patents when it sold the 3D printing research operation to 3D Systems. By the time of the sale, Xerox had been manufacturing 3D System’s ProJet printers for more than a decade. Today, Xerox sells jetting heads to 3D printer OEMs.

More recently Xerox acquired Vader Systems and its “liquid metal” printing technology. Vader’s technology ejects droplets of metal in suspension in a digitally controlled manner. Do you think Xerox is applying its knowledge of 2D inkjet printing at high speeds to its 3D printer acquisition? Or applying what it learns about printing metal to improve its ability to print paper, textiles and other materials?

And, as you may have heard, Xerox has received $24 billion in binding financing commitments as part of its effort to purchase HP (see Xerox’s presentation here). Imagine what could happen if not only the 2D print but also the 3D print researchers come together.

The idea that what is learned from 3D printing is applied to 2D printing and vice versa certainly applies to HP, which has been building and shipping its own 3D printers for more than three years. HP has gone so far as to 3D print components of its own 3D printers. And, in collaboration with Siemens, has redesigned parts in such a way that the parts can only be 3D printed and offer significantly improved performance.

I first saw HP’s color 3D print samples and development (pre-prototype) imaging equipment about five years ago. Although HP brought a monochrome 3D printer to market first, its color 3D printer has been available since 2018. And color is what 2D printing companies sell so further advances in 3D color printing should be expected.

Ricoh took a different approach to the market by selling 3D printing services and 3D printers to the European market. While at first it sold 3D printers made by other manufacturers, it partnered with long-time 3D printer manufacture Aspect to develop and build a Ricoh-branded metal powder bed fusion device.

Think of what this could mean: Ricoh operates a service bureau, learns the intricacies of creating 3D printable files and how to print the files with different manufacturers’ machines, learns the trends in what commercial 3D printing buyers want, and learns from what Aspect ascertained from its installed base of industrial users. And then Ricoh applies those learnings to its 3D print products and services offerings.

I visited the Mimaki facilities in Japan several years ago. The company is a respected provider of wide format inkjet printers (think of signs, vehicle and building graphics, packaging, textiles, apparel and more). Its full color 3DUJ-553 printer can produce 10 million colors, enabling vivid, highly detailed items as well as full and semi-transparent items.

Xaar, a well-known 2D inkjet printhead technology provider, is heavily involved with 3D printing. Its portfolio of system components includes ink supply systems and drive electronics as well as product and materials development. Xaar3D, a spin-off of inkjet technology provider Xaar that counts Stratasys as a major investor, is developing its high speed sintering inkjet-based 3D printing technology.

GIS (Global Inkjet Systems) doesn’t build 3D printers, but they do provide OEMs with technology necessary to make jetting technology 3D printers work: software, controllers and fluid delivery systems. GIS specializes in, among other things, bio-medical, bio-printing, flat panel displays, printed electronics and semi-conductors.

The use of 3D printing by large and small businesses, governments and researchers expands daily. As this brief look at “non-traditional” 3D print tech providers illustrates, in addition to the known vendors you must regularly seek out and assess providers that you would not normally think about.

Let us help you look outside the box – whether a user who is learning about 3D printing, convincing management to invest in additive manufacturing or a vendor developing new products and services, we are here to enable you.