I spent a lot of time there in the mid-90s trying to convince educational publishers that digital technology was about to have a massive impact on their business. While they got the concept, they just couldn’t fathom how to justify the expense. Their existing model was pretty straightforward. Figure out the cost of print, paper, and binding. Multiply that by four to cover the cost of content, editorial, sales, and all the other expenses. Add it all up, and that was the fully burdened cost. Then, mark it up 50% and go sell 50,000 units.
Digital printing had an entirely different set of economics. The cost per book was 5 to 50 times more expensive. But, they didn’t have to commit to 50,000 copies – they could make 500, or 50 for that matter. They said, “well that will be great for proofs, but it won’t work for production. It’s too expensive.”
Meanwhile (digitally printed) course packets were flying off the shelves at college campuses nationwide. Why? Because a professor could include only the content that he or she was actually teaching in the class. When I reminded them of that, they said, “the Kinkos lawsuit solved that problem.”
Not really I said, they’re just using less of your material. But, you could use the same technology to your advantage. You could offer customized versions of textbooks that only include the chapters that a specific professor intends to teach. Oh, and by-the-way, because each book is unique, they’ll be harder for bookstores to buy back and resell. You don’t profit from used book sales, right?
A little while later the publishers’ sales reps started calling in and telling their bosses that their accounts wanted to customize their textbooks. We’re talking big schools and big classes like psychology and economics 101, which accounted for thousands of sales. My phone would ring and some publisher’s buyer would ask, “How does this customization thing work again?” Within a few short years at some major college publishing houses, “Custom” divisions made up 25% of sales or more.
I left the publishing business in 1997 and for years only traveled to New York for the occasional trade show. Then in 2013, 3DLT was invited to compete in Battlefield at TechCrunch Disrupt. We were the first 3D printing company ever to participate in that event.
Imagine, 30 teams duking it out for the coveted TechCrunch Cup…and $50,000 of undiluted capital. Perhaps more importantly, Disrupt is ground zero for startup investment. If you’re not familiar with the event, check out HBO’s Silicon Valley. While the show spoofs startups and their investors, its creators nailed the Disrupt experience spot-on. Literally every team is trying to “change the world.”
So were we. After all, what’s more disruptive than changing the way people buy things? We prepared like crazy and thought we knew what to expect. We were way off. Our business model was unpolished and our presentation was too gimmicky. The judges hammered us.
We left New York billed as “the first store for printable 3D objects.” But, by the time we arrived back in Cincinnati, we knew we couldn’t survive as a B2C marketplace for 3D printable files. It would have cost millions of dollars to build brand awareness in a market that, at that time, didn’t exist. Way too few people had access to their own 3D printer.
So we pivoted and became a B2B platform for 3D printing As-a-Service. I wrote a series of blog articles about how retail stores could leverage 3D printing and we started talking with retailers about how we could help them sell 3D printed products online and in-store. We got a big break in 2014 when we landed a pilot with Amazon. Since then we’ve launched with Walmart, Sears, and Rakuten, among others.
So much has changed in the 3D printing market over the past two years. Back then, very few people were thinking retail. Now it’s getting serious mindshare. Staples offers printing services in some of its US stores. The UPS Store has 3D printers in nearly 100 locations. Dremel launched a 3D printer. MakerBot started selling printers in select Home Depot stores and during the last holiday season, our partners at PieceMaker piloted their kiosk at Toys-R-Us.
Last week I went back to the Big Apple for 3D Print Week New York. I was there for two days and did my best to soak it all in. I met with customers, talked with exhibitors, and checked out the myriad events. It was a lot to cover in just a few short days.
But for me, this was no ordinary trade show. I still firmly believe 3D printing changes the way consumers buy products. So, once again I was heading there with something to prove.
Imagine what I was thinking when HP’s Worldwide Director of 3D Printing, Scott Schiller, kicked off his keynote at the Inside 3D Printing Conference with a story about his experience in book publishing. He shared how HP had worked with publishers and their printers to convert book printing from offset lithography to high-volume digital printing. It took several iterations, but over the course of a few years, they had developed an inkjet platform that could print in very high quality, in full color, at over 800 feet per minute, allowing their print customers to compete with traditional manufacturing methods, even on very long runs.
Then he talked about HP’s plans for 3D printing. Like their high-volume inkjet devices, they plan on using an array of print heads that can be stacked side-by-side for size and speed. HP’s platform also enables full color printing, and even multiple material properties.
A central part of HP’s strategy is working with industry partners to implement the technology. One can easily imagine how this might work. HP partners with manufacturers and service bureaus who buy their equipment. They digitally manufacture parts and products, which end up in the hands of consumers. A significant percentage of these will likely be sold through retail…changing the way people buy things.
Right back in the same old New York groove.