It's been a couple of days since Stratasys announced its definitive partnership with HP — enough time for dust to start to settle. The markets, the commentators and users of 3D printing technology went into overdrive in the 24 hours following the announcement, which was to be expected, and was probably a primary aim of Stratasys in making the announcement.
There are, of course, polar opposite and rather extreme schools of thought depending on who you talk/listen to. On the one hand you have the enthusiastic "sea change" posse, who categorically see this as the moment that the 3D printing market will change forever. They are battling the more reserved and cynical crew that view this announcement as a publicity stunt that has seen Stratasys stock soar by an unprecedented 44% following a dismal financial year in 2009.
I have to say it, I love being a part of this industry. I really do. It excites me and it frustrates me in equal measure. The thing I have learned though is not to jump too far either way when something big happens, and make no mistake, however this Stratasys deal plays out, it is big!
There is something to be said for the middle ground, okay I possibly sound like the Clover ad, but it is the place where one can see most clearly — in all directions. At this point in time I can see that the announcement has brought Stratasys (in particular) and 3D printing (in general) centre stage. That is a great thing in itself. However, as I mentioned in my previous post, we have to wait for some months for the machines to hit the market when the real impact can start to be measured.
Also, while it is the lower end range of Stratasys machines that HP will be selling (Dimension/uprint), there is still no real visibility on the spec of the machines that HP will be selling. Personally, I don't think this is too much of an issue. The FDM process is an established and reliable one that will turn the heads of people that are being introduced to 3DP for the first time. The key to unlocking greater awareness is HP's ability to take sales & distribution much deeper than Stratasys, or any of the other 3DP vendors for that matter, into untapped markets. This is what excites me about this announcement.
Taking stock, I am of the opinion that the announcement is one amongst many factors that are driving the 3DP sector forward. Another vital element of this, as I have expounded for a while, are low cost 3D printers. An analogy that works here is by considering how the 3DP market could operate in much the same way as the housing market. Few first time buyers will (or can afford) to buy a £1,000,000 house with everything that they think they want or need. They get onto the property ladder by starting small (and less expensive). Once they have made the initial investment, they then upgrade at a later date. Recent history shows that without first time buyers, the housing market stalls. This is how I see 3DP. It needs lots and lots of first time buyers, starting small to get a full understanding of the capabilities and potential of the technology. Once that understanding is in place they can take stock and upgrade in line with their requirements — the whole industry benefits! The higher general awareness will also mean that new applications will invariably follow, and I'm going to say it again, and that killer app could emerge!
The desire by many commentators for 3D printing / Additive Manufacturing to be THE dominant force in the way we make things sometimes works against their good intentions. I hope that by raising awareness and uptake of 3DP it will become ONE of the dominant forces and fulfill its great potential that largely remains untapped.