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Ewloe, United Kingdom
Writing, tweeting, debating and occasionally getting a little over-excited about 3D Printing. But always aiming to keep it real!

Friday 22 October 2010

TCT Live 2010 — A worthwhile trip.

The fog is starting to clear following a successful TCT event at the Ricoh Arena earlier this week. This is a show that I have been involved with in one way or another for the last 15 years, and the 2010 edition was, it has to be said, a triumph — in terms of organisation and results.

TCT has continued to grow in terms of its physical size and visitor numbers year on year, and 2010 was no exception. The industry's worst kept secret was also launched on the second day of the show, with the announcement that in 2011, TCT will move to the NEC in Birmingham to run alongside MM Live once again, as well as Interplas — Rapid News Communications' latest acquisition.

Although no longer directly employed by RNC, this year I was commissioned to draw together the conference programme on Additive Manufacturing and it was a good line up (even if I do say so myself). The subsequent feedback has been very encouraging from delegates at the conference during the two days as well as notes dropping in my in box since. (Almost worth the sleepless nights!!)

Walking the halls was also very positive, virtually everyone I met and spoke with was infinitely more up beat than this time last year, although it should be said that quite a few of them were tracking the CSR as it was delivered on Wednesday afternoon on their hand-held devices. Nobody can quite define how the impact will roll out into industry, but business seemed brisk on the show floor.

The other thing that struck me was that TCT continues to gain prominence for the additive technology vendors — for AM and 3D printing. The majority of vendors have always had a presence at TCT but now the CEO's are showing their faces and not just sending minions!

All in all a valuable three days away from the office.

Friday 8 October 2010

3D Systems Buys Bits from Bytes — A Significant Manoeuvre for 3D Printing?

On Tuesday the news broke that 3D Systems had acquired Bits from Bytes (BfB). This strategic move is not surprising in itself, and is precisely the sort of acquisition that 3D Systems is renowned for — and seemingly very good at. I'm thinking back to the middle of last year when 3D Systems acquired Desktop Factory.

So the company has bought up two low-end 3D printing manufacturers and all of their IP in just over 12 months.

I suspect the dust is settling all round — the news has been spread far and wide across all the usual distribution channels, but there has been surprisingly little commentary on this. It's taken me a few days to formulate my own thoughts into some sort of order on this news, and it's definitely not clear cut yet, but here goes ....

Despite the surface similarities of the two acquisitions there are also some huge differences. The Desktop Factory machine, despite clever marketing had never actually reached the market, it was more about acquiring R&D and a very good marketing professional (Cathy Lewis, formerly CEO at Desktop Factory, is now the marketing spokesperson for 3D Systems). Bits from Bytes on the other hand has been shipping 3D printers — the Rapman kit and latterly the plug & play BfB 3000 — through various global channels to some acclaim for two years, with an ever increasing order book.

My first ruminations were on the motivation for these acquisitions. Call me cynical, but I could not help but wonder at first if the company motive was to buy the low-end 3D printer vendors to suppress sales, and protect market share within the whole additive manufacturing (AM) industry. 3D Systems does have a reputation for being aggressive and pretty closed off to journalists and customers alike. But although hard to interact with, it is hard to deny the success the company has achieved with additive technologies. I have come around to thinking that there were probably different motivations for each acquisition rather than one holistic subversive conspiracy!

Desktop Factory was hitting the headlines at a similar time to the 3D Systems V-Flash 3D printer — both hailed as the answer to the industry's needs in terms getting a foot on the AM ladder. Indeed the prospects of both were great but neither ever seemed to fulfill the promised potential. For Desktop Factory lack of financial backing and some technical / production issues prevented the company from actually reaching the market. The technical problems may yet be resolved, but the Desktop Factory concept has still not materialised into a working machine for sale. For the V-flash — well no one ever did get to the bottom of why the launch date kept getting postponed. However, the machine did finally filter through, but lost some credibility as a result; plus the market dynamic had shifted significantly too with the arrival of working 3D printers under £5000, namely the Makerbot, RepRap and RapMan. Since then there have been more changes with the arrival of the UP! 3D printer and the BfB 3000.

So why has 3D Systems bought Bits from Bytes (BfB)? Well, as stated, 3D Systems is very protective of its position in the AM industry. It is one of a very small minority of AM vendors that occupies space selling across the whole spectrum of machines — low to high end. Stratasys is the other, but does not have a product offering under $10,000. I suspect that the V-Flash has not met expectations — internally or at large — and therefore the BfB product line was an attractive proposition in that it was a ready-made, working solution. It has been bought as a going concern, and the 3D Systems announcement asserts that the Bristol, UK-based BfB facility will be undertaking business as usual. The 3D Systems website has the BfB machines on its product selector feature already too — and they are the only machines offered under $5000. Not something the company could offer last Monday!! I can't see the BfB brand disappearing as too much is invested in it, but based on historical performance I don't think it will remain without some sort of 3D Systems trademark for very long either.

This is beyond a doubt a significant development in the 3D printing arena. How far it will penetrate remains to be seen, but with the competition heating up things are getting very interesting again.