Why 2D Printing Is Like 3D Printing: A Counter Rant

Editor’s note: John Hauer is a sales, marketing and technology innovator with a 20+ career of working in print and related industries. He manages a blog which evangelizes 3D printing for traditional 2D printers. Follow him on his blog and on Twitter.

I recently read an article on TechCrunch by Jon Evans entitled 3D Printers Are Not Like 2D Printers. While I would agree with the title (obviously the two devices don’t serve the same purpose), I don’t agree with the argument Jon makes for why 3D printing is not like 2D printing.

His primary argument is that 3D printers make “stuff,” while 2D printers disseminate information. I’d counter that argument by pointing out that packaging, boxes and other forms of dimensional printing not only provide information, but serve as containers – stuff that holds other stuff. Jon’s point is that “our relationship to stuff is thoroughly, extremely, fundamentally different from our relationship to information.” I would agree, noting that, with some amusement, kids sometimes play with the box more than the toy because they perceive the box as more interesting.

More importantly to me however is the implied assertion that 3D printed “stuff” doesn’t or can’t disseminate information. Consider for example the 3D-printed, customizable Android figurines currently for sale on Cubify.com. Other than promoting a brand, what purpose do they serve? And with the obvious exception of an extra dimension, how are they really any different than a poster or wall graphic of a customized Android figure?

For a moment, let’s get beyond this issue of output and think a bit about the workflow. With 2D (digital) printing, the workflow looks like this:

File created → file submitted to print device → file is printed → item is finished (bound, etc.)

The workflow for 3D printing is very similar:

File is created → file is submitted to print device → file is printed → item is finished (decorated, etc.)

Certainly there are myriad other sub-steps along the way, and there are major differences within the two processes. The software to create and print projects in 2D is different than in 3D. The substrates used are different. Finishing is a whole different animal, though it is interesting to note that 2D printing techniques are being used to decorate 3D-printed items.

As far as history goes, 2D digital printing didn’t develop overnight. At first it was painful and expensive. File formats were incompatible, the devices were slow, quality was suspect, substrates were limited, and finishing was manual. Like 2D, as 3D printing matures, file issues will be resolved, speed and quality will improve, substrate options will expand, and finishing will become automated. Breakeven run lengths between digital and traditional processes will rise. At some point the “printers triangle” will be better optimized – you will be able to get quality, turnaround, and price, simultaneously.

Will it ever be as cheap to print 100,000 toys as it is to die-cast or injection-mold them? Probably not, but cost is not the only motivator for people’s buying decisions. Just as with 2D digital printing, people also buy based on the ability to customize or personalize — or because it is more convenient — even when the price is higher than that of a generic item produced in bulk.

In a previous article, Jon made the point that “communal 3D printer shops” will serve the majority of future needs. He forecasts that in high-infrastructure areas, web-to-print providers like Stratasys will supply consumers and that in low-infrastructure areas, people will use local printing facilities. Beyond the desktop, this is how 2D consumers are being served today, though I don’t think it’s as much about infrastructure as it is a matter of convenience. There are times when it makes more sense for me to order print online, pay a bit less and wait for delivery, and other times when I order locally, pay a bit more, and pick the product up.

This level of infrastructure to me is the most important point and why 3D is like 2D printing. Web-to-print solutions exist for both platforms, allowing consumers to enter specifications, upload files, and check out. Days later, the product arrives. What hasn’t been developed yet is the retail side of 3D print. Those who say it’s not print, but rather “additive manufacturing” believe it should fall squarely in the purview of machine shops, injection molders, and the like. The problem is, those businesses are not geared toward consumers. They don’t have retail locations, they don’t market to consumers, and they typically don’t have the business model or point-of-purchase systems to deal with small consumer transactions.

Who does have that kind of infrastructure? Traditional printers, office supply stores, and shipping giants like FedEx (Kinko’s) and UPS (Mail Boxes etc.). They receive files from clients every day (different, I know), offer several printing methods (black and white, color, large format) and multiple finishing methods (trimming, binding, lamination). They are located in retail areas, are used to dealing with and educating consumers, and have the ability to handle and process a lot of small orders.

2D print shops also relatively standardized and well-networked, allowing them to effectively sell the “distribute-then-print” concept. Need copies of a presentation in Altanta? Why print it in Ohio and carry it when you can print it there. How long do you imagine it will be until we’re distributing then printing objects in the same manner? Seems like a pretty clear case of history repeating itself to me.