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Mason's Musings: Don't Believe the Hype

Jul 1, 2013 12:00 AM


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BY DENNIS MASON

A contrarian takes on 3D printing and other controversies

WHY IS EVERYONE SO EXCITED ABOUT 3D PRINTING?

In the last few months, everyone from network reporters to home-based bloggers suggested 3D printing was the greatest thing to come along since bread was sliceable and toasters were invented.

3D printing isn’t really all that new, having been around since the early 1980s. At drupa 2008, Xerox had a couple of 3D printers in their booth as part of a demonstration showing that their technology is used in other industries. The machines were producing working adjustable wrenches and pliers for the crowds. Intriguing, but nothing that caused printers to rush out and buy a machine.

For years, 3D printing has found extensive application in modeling and quickly producing engineering prototypes. A few companies specializing in 3D printing can usually be found at design engineering shows, but they typically cause little stir.

Commercial printers who think this might be The Next Big Thing, the Great Something that will help their businesses rebound, should take a deep breath and ponder the following question. What if we dropped the printing tag and called this what it really is? Do you think “3D extrusion” is something you could sell?

This is a complex technology bearing little similarity to putting ink on paper. Granted, it does have some things in common with inkjet printing—except rather than ink, the jet releases molten plastic, which then hardens. Piling plastic on plastic with recurring passes of the jet creates a solid structure, made according to specifications from 3D computer-aided design software.

Depending on the product being printed and its ultimate use, the producer must select from dozens of plastic compounds available. Most of the vendors in the 3D printing industry have different machines available to accommodate different raw plastics and products of different sizes. And this is not high-volume production, in most cases. Plastic must cure, and producing something the size of a cigarette lighter can often take the better part of an hour.

Today the technology is used primarily to produce engineering prototypes. Hobbyists use the machines to make things like model airplane parts, and crafters use them for jewelry and other artistic endeavors. Prices are dropping—stores like Staples and Office Depot have hobby-level machines along with their desktop printers.

MASON’S MANIFESTO: Printers whose client bases include design engineers, architectural firms, artists, or others needing quick-turnaround, short-run modeling service may find limited business opportunity in 3D printing. Others should tread very carefully.

WHAT’S UP WITH ADOBE?

Adobe recently announced that its Creative Suite—the essential standard for graphic design, which includes Photoshop, Illustrator, and other popular programs—will henceforth be sold as SaaS (Software as a Service). Under the new scheme, graphic designers will buy Adobe Creative Cloud—downloading software to their computers with the option of keeping files in the cloud.

Files in the cloud can be made available to others regardless of location, without FTP or other transfer techniques. Users can download applications and then work offline. The latest applications are always available but need not be downloaded if clients are wedded to older versions. The idea of constant access to the latest software version is particularly appealing, since it eliminates the need to wait for the next version. But this is also the area that may confound graphic designers—particularly the myriad freelancers that serve the printing industry.

One question as of this writing concerns the many Photoshop and Illustrator special effects plug-ins. If Adobe is constantly updating the core software, how can designers be assured that the plugins they are using will still work? And how can plug-in developers track potentially subtle Adobe-instigated changes after they are released and users start complaining? And to whom should users complain?

Think of it this way: There are millions of devices that rely on a USB connection to a computer for charging or communication. What would happen if the connection were only standard on the USB/computer end of the cord and the end that plugged into the telephone or GPS or tablet or portable keyboard depended on the whim of the engineer who designed the chargers?

MASON’S MANIFESTO: If you carry a suitcase full of chargers with different plugs—or a universal device that coordinates the connection with only most of them—you already know what could possibly go wrong with the Adobe Creative Cloud scheme.

CAN WE GET MORE STANDARDIZATION?

The connectivity that resulted from the Smart Factory and CIP4 initiatives seems to be working pretty well. Equipment and software designers know that machines need to talk to each other, and standards are what make that possible. Older machines are still off the grid, but most new devices have been designed with machine-to-machine communications in mind.

RIPs, however, remain anything but standard. Beyond separate hardware and software RIPs, we have RIPs that work to significantly different criteria. A designer’s file may include the conventional CMYK files as well as separate ones for coating, foiling, white ink for masking, metallic inks, spot colors and cutting dies. But many machines—particularly in the digital and wide-format market—are shipped with RIPs that only process CMYK files or have only limited capability beyond CMYK. Even some of the latest machines that have white and metallic ink capabilities can’t handle files prepared from established design programs such as Color-Logic.

MASON’S MANIFESTO: Couldn’t some of the RIP manufacturers get together and resolve this issue? Shouldn’t printers and graphic designers be demanding greater commonality? The R&E Council played an important role, and its demise means that an unbiased, objective push for cooperation is now missing in the industry!

Dennis Mason is the principal of Mason Consulting and an associate editor for GreensheetBIZ.

Talk to Dennis: B2Me.me/BC9