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Dear HP, Brother, Xerox, Seiko Epson, Ricoh, RolandDG, IBM, Texas Instruments, Konica Minolta, Fujifilm and Sony, Please make a 3D printer.

Dear HP, Brother, Xerox, Seiko Epson, Ricoh, RolandDG, IBM, Texas Instruments, Konica Minolta, Fujifilm and Sony,

Please make a 3D printer.

This industry is already growing at a fair clip, with 29% revenue increases a year. The interest in the consumer market is exploding. Online 3D printing services are growing very quickly.  Over 10,000,000 people have 3D printed hearing aids. Over a 100,000 people have been helped with 3D printed surgical guides or implants. End use 3D printed parts are starting to appear in industry. Prototyping using 3D printing is being used by more and more companies and since they can develop products quicker and more accurately this is sure to grow. 3D printing dramatically lowers barriers to entry to many manufactured products. 3D printing can be used extensively in mass customization applications. At the same time consumers are looking to customize, personalize and design things. Millenials have a high interest in immediacy, things being “just so” and making better things. This is a technology that can fundamentally alter the world’s technological landscape and have huge impacts on manufacturing, distribution and industry. What kind of proof points are you guys looking for? How much evidence do you need before you develop and market your own 3D printers?

Time is running out.

Remember when the internet was cute, nerdy and boring? Now, remember Amazon happening? We have arrived at a moment before such an inflection point. You guys can totally still get involved, you’re not too late yet. But, get cracking, time is running out. Each of your businesses has significant overlap with 3D printing. All of you have used this technology yourselves to develop products.  Each of you has core competencies and deep experience in ancillary fields that would disproportionately benefit you. Each of you could easily transfer a wealth of competency in marketing, distribution and product development to the development of your own 3D printer. Each of you is active in business areas whereby key technology would benefit your development of these devices. Many of you could use existing distribution and manufacturing capacity to make these things. All of you could benefit from selling them. And you really need to do this guys.

Do this most of all because of the patents. Do this because each of you has patents in 3D printing and has worked on this technology for ages. Do it because you invested millions in fundamental research years ago. Do this because if this industry explodes and you are not part of it but at the same time have held patents in this area for decades then this will suck so so much for you. Its like you invented the future a decade ago and then kind of lost interest. Its like you were at the forefront of this technology in the 90′s and early 2000′s and just when things got interesting you said, screw it lets stick with the photocopiers, printers and fax machines. Yeah, who wants a technology that we invented that lets people make anything they want, our future is clearly in paper. With a few exceptions, lets face it guys your future looks bleak.

Cameras and imaging. Probably one of the most insanely competitive industries in the world, with little in the way of margins and more and more market entrants all the time. A hyper darwinian product development and release cycle with ever more fickle consumers and ever more competitive pricing while with each generation more and more technology and features have to be packed into every device. Meanwhile you guys have got to be worried about the whole phone camera thing as well as tablets. Many product categories are merging and your entire industry is but a feature in these universal devices. Amazon makes a device that could kill your market and doesn’t even need to make any money off it because this device is meant to generate money for them. They probably only ask money for it because of antitrust concerns and because they want to establish value in the consumer’s mind. Competing with each other is all fine and dandy. But, they’re basically trying to get a store in everyone’s pocket. How will you be able to compete with that in the long run? Meanwhile they’re duking it out with Apple who wants to do the same thing. By selling devices that generate revenue over time through sales their business models are a lot better than yours.

Seriously? If I was in the camera business I’d walk away. I’d say, “guys lets put our heads together and look at ourselves as one of the world’s most premier R&D and product development organizations and just stop this camera nonsense and go do something else.” Its a lot of revenue but for so little return and so much risk. The escalating technology stack we have to invent and deploy is going to make this a billion dollar game of Jenga and we might just be the ones to fall over. Lets go make cars or robots or basically anything else but cameras. We’re so lean and smart we’ll do amazingly well in any business. Except maybe other dying businesses like screens, printers or copiers.

Copiers, Printers and Faxes. If your main business currently consists of printers, copiers and faxes you’ve got to be more than a bit  worried now. I know, paper has been dying for decades and still looks robust in some areas. But, I think you knew this the first time you held a tablet PC, you’re doomed. There will be less and less paper used throughout the world. Mass marketed touch screens, tablets, phones, e-readers and other convergent devices will not only deplete demand for magazines, newspapers and the like but also make it possible for a lot of data entry to be automated and done in a paperless way. With kids growing up interacting primarily with screens much of your market depends on the inertia and nostalgia of older generations. Lets not knock this, I mean Franklin Mint is still around and some people still collect stamps. But, being a gigantic fish in a pond thats being drained has got to give you an uneasy feeling. Many companies in paper dependent industries have been making all sorts of wonderful plans to deal with a paperless world. But, document management is a cost center and makes you a part of the software & IT services industry.

Whatever you do, don’t go into document management.

I mean, do you want to go head to head with Oracle, IBM and EMC? Or do you really want to dream of a future where best case you’ll be selling an expensive solution while competing with Google. This is not a fun place to be in. This organizing the worlds information thing they keep talking about, they really want to do this.  Do you really want the future of your company to depend on a foosball game? Picture this, you’re making inroads in document management and are building up a sales organization to rival the formidable IBM & Oracle. Things are going OK but its a tough road ahead and you’ve never been a true software company so the learning curve is steep. All of a sudden over the Atlantic, 10,000 feet up Larry says to Sergey, “hey Sergey we totally forgot about this enterprise document management stuff.” Sergey is momentarily distracted and gazes up over the cabin of their 747. Larry makes a quick pass and with a resounding plonk scores. They take their hands off the game for a few moments and decide to shoot over a quick email to the relevant VP in order to redouble their efforts. Do you really want to be in a business where you are going to try to out execute Google on UX, server infrastructure and search? Well if that’s your plan I’d go for gold and start a rival search engine. Might as well go the whole hog. Meanwhile Jeff Bezos is contemplating further steps to broaden is gigantic river of commerce into new areas and use core competencies in computing infrastructure to expand further into the cloud and expand the cloud further into the world. And you have to out infrastructure Amazon if you’d like to win against them. Have fun with that. But, thats not your only worry. Tim Cook at Apple looks expectantly around his boardroom. “Come on guys, you guys are smart. I’ve been asking the same question for months. What the hell do we do with all this money? We know its got to start with i, but what do we do?”

Oracle (rant)

At the same time across the valley a group of senior Oracle sales furtively scan the cafeteria. There was a management reorganization only this morning at a 4 AM breakfast meeting and another is expected before the soup gets cold. They don’t know anyone’s name, stacks of new and newer business cards pile up on their desks and theres a rumor going around that on the third floor there is a guy who used to work for Sun. He’s actually the last Sun employee still at Oracle and he’s called last of the mohicans Bob and HR keeps him around as a souvenir from the acquisition. Also, If they’d fire him they’d have to delete a row in the database and no one wants that. Also, he’s the only person in the company who can get the Java automatic update to work on a PC.  Another rumor centers on the new sales development training which will involve raising a kitten from birth only to have to strangle it upon sucessful completion of the training. The rumor is not about the training occurring, its about whether it will be mandatory or not and where they’ll get all those kittens from. “The internet” is the most heard quip. People speak in soft whispers about a server hard drive that melted in the data center. The drive actually melted. A traumatized technician was heard mumbling “the Horror, the Horror” but this was actually a “miss-hear” and he was aimlessly stumbling through the building actually saying, “the HR, the HR.”  Apparently the end of quarter off-boarding activity had been localized on one cluster and the drive melted.  The technician thought he would be fired but his line manager had been reassigned and the department reorganized and then given a new name. A mistype lead to the department being called ORA-1722 and it vanished from the organizational chart. This chart, roughly similar to a detailed star chart of the Milky Way only with more moving things on it, is so vast and changes so frequently that HR was subsequently unable to locate the lost department. HR knows it lost the department but has no idea where it went or who is in it. The technician and his team of 20 now continue to show up for work but its been months and no work and no manager have been assigned to them. Some industry insiders estimate that there are approximately a thousand people like him at Oracle. They sometimes meet in secret at night to coordinate strategies on remaining unseen and call themselves Larry’s Angels. Over half the group of Angels come from the 1997 acquisition of Temple Heatherington Corp., a middleware integration software company from the midwest. An M&A staffer sent an email to corporate communications informing them of the acquisition but his attachment in the email was too large and it bounced, he was subsequently reorganized and the acquisition was forgotten.  5 days a week the group of 517 staffers of Temple Heatherington meet for golf, one stays behind at the office waiting for a phone call that will never come. The soup is quickly consumed in the cafeteria while everyone continually introduces themselves and congratulates each other on new job titles. Do you know what the weirdest thing about eating lunch at Oracle is? The cutlery. They only eat with knives. No forks, no spoons. Thats how cutthroat the place is. I didn’t believe it at first but I went once and its a room full of people in sharp suits holding sharper knives while staring at each other over their glistening blades each delicately balanced to hold the tiniest droplets of soup. I asked for the vegan option and they cooked my steak for me; everyone else was just cutting and eating it straight from the cow. Now of course the above paragraph is in jest, but the point is I wouldn’t want the future of my company to depend on outcompeting these guys at software sales.

Casualties of convergence.

Its like you’re drifting from a competitive dying industry into the shark infested waters of cloud computing and gigantic aggressive software and hardware companies that believe they’re in winner takes all markets. With the PC, tablet, phone and camera all converging you sit squarely in the sights of a few hyper aggressive companies that have better business models. You’d have to out-algorithm Google, out-infrastructure Amazon, out-design Apple and out-sell and out-develop IBM, Microsoft and Oracle to survive in the document management space. Meanwhile this market is both a threat and opportunity to BPO outsourcing software companies such as Tata and is vulnerable to all manner of start ups and new ways of sharing information. By staying in document printing you are staying in a dying market. By making cameras you face the prospect of your entire market becoming a feature on a Kindle or Apple device. Both Amazon and Apple have better business models with their devices providing revenue for them over time because they act as a store while your cameras do not do this. Many of the companies mentioned above have multiple targets on their backs. And even though they are themselves very competitive, competing with companies that want to organize all of the worlds information or sell everything the world has to offer is a completely different ballgame. Worse still, the deciding factors in this ball game are things such as datacenter management and algorithms that are core competencies of the likes of Amazon and Google. However large you are now as a company, the prospects are not good if you need to compete these companies on their competencies while being largely unable to use your own.

The future

There is however a future open to you and that future is in 3D printing. You all can use your core competencies, existing marketing, existing R&D, existing sales channels and existing corporate structures in this market. Developing 3D printers and 3D printing services is a natural extension of your current businesses. Furthermore, you’ve been working on the underlying technologies for decades. You need to do this.

HP

HP’s flirtation with 3D printing is the most well known. Its near purchase of  Stratasys made headlines and it has sold Stratasys machines through its channel partners and own sales organizations. HP is also more fundamentally involved with 3D printing because the Zcorp color 3D printers all use HP print heads. Indeed you need to replace one per bin, so HP through that engagement will have had exposure to the market for many years now. Your powder bin patent shows deep involvement with the technology. The low density 3D printing patent is also quite interesting. The fact that you have a patent for a cement 3D printing process is also notable. The most interesting patent in my opinion is your “different volumes” 3D printing inkjet process. If that wasn’t enough you also have a patent for a resin based 3D printing system, a water soluble films 3D Printing process, a photo activatable build material and a metal oxide one. The UI patent on looking at a User interface of the status of a 3D print job is downright sneaky as is the 3D printing queue patent. But, when will your deep flirtation with this technology end and when will you start using some of these technologies to actually make your own machines?

Texas Instruments

TI also has a deep involvement in 3D printing. Its DLP projector chips power EnvisionTEC machines EnvisionTEC uses standard Digital Light Processing chips that are used for projectors and such to voxelize resins and waxes. Through this business relationship TI should have learned a lot from the business already. Additionally TI has a number of fundamental patents in the industry including for a voxel based 3D printing system, and a “charged area” 3D printing process, a Stereolithography patent, and a rather wonderfully general and wonderfully early 1993 3D printing patent. So guys, whats holding you back? The easy way forward would be to call the nice people at EnvisionTEC and buy them. This would give you a wonderful new business line that builds on TI technology and uses TI chips in the 3D printers. In one fell swoop you’d have a head start over a lot of people.

 Ricoh

If we look over all of the research areas Ricoh is involved in there is huge overlap between research being conducted by Ricoh and the 3D printing market. Whats more Ricoh has a deep belief in environmentally friendly solutions to everyday problems and a recyclable 3D printing material and accompanying printer would fit exactly into their goals as a company. Ricoh already produces the inkjet 3D printing heads used by Objet on all its 3D printers and might produce some Objet materials but everyones a bit secretive about that. One of the biggest recent advances that Ricoh has made is in UV curable inkjet inks. Their immediate application would be in the Objet process. Additionally they have a wealth of core Inkjet patents and have developed ink jet technology for making piezoelectric thin film and a technology for printing semiconductors. This coupled with Ricoh Innovations deep interest in the Internet of Things and Infinite Network idea, means that of all the companies listed it would probably be the biggest shame if Ricoh did not directly involve itself directly in 3D printing.

Brother 

Brother has a number of very early and significant patents in the 3D printing space. It has a 1992 inkjet 3D printing patent and a 1991 thermosetting 3D printing process patent. The company makes sewing machines and a family of paper printing products and systems. The company also makes CNC machines and so would seem to have a wealth of commonalities with the 3D printing business.

Xerox

Xerox is probably the least concerned with inventing the future and letting it slip through its fingers. It has a number of patents in inkjet, toner and other ancillary areas that are widely referenced in other 3D printing patents. Most interestingly though it has an acoustic method for 3D printing metal, “A method of manufacturing 3D parts using a sacrificial metal.”

RolandDG

RolandDG makes CNC machines for all markets and it sells thousands of CNC machines worldwide. It also makes milling machines and engraving machines, 3D scanners as well as inkjet printers. 3D printing would seem to be an excellent fit for its existing market and it could draw on deep experience from many of its product lines. Its consumer CNC mill and dental milling device experience would seem to be especially beneficial. RolandDG has a patent for a 3D printing process using a light cured resin. It also has a very useful UV curable ink patent and a subtractive & additive 3D printing process.

 Seiko Epson

Seiko Epson is very deep into all things fine mechanical and Epson is a major manufacturer of printers. They have a wiring board manufacturing patent, as well as a number of thin film patents and a patent on “fabricating a pattern.”

IBM

IBM is more into technology services at the moment but it has a dandy little patent that the entire industry is going to run into at one point. This patent describes a method of closed loop control in order to improve 3D printed part accuracy. Closed loop being essential to improvements to part accuracy this seems like a totally fun patent to have. IBM has a lot of chip manufacturing patents and also patents in electron beam melting and other related things. They also have this doozy of a Finite Element Analysis patent that if broadly interpreted as a way to describe parts would be significant and its point generation in an automated mesh generation system is also a potential headache for a lot of people .

Konica Minolta

Minolta has a patent from 2004 on its own color 3D printing process. They also have a more general patent on a powder based 3D printing process.

Fujifilm 

Fuhifilm has a patent for a powder based & UV curable 3D printing process.

Sony

Sony has a patent for a resin based 3D printing technology and another patent which is similarly stereolithography related as well as a number of patents related to that technology. Sony has also invented a powder based 3D printing technology and for good measure has a patent on DLP based 3D printing as well. Sony actually entered the 3D printing market in the 200o’s and produced stereolithography machines before quitting the business in 2006. Oops. At the same time Sony actually developed a resin 3D printing process and a 3D printer and manufactured it for nearly two decades. The Sony Solid Creation System is now still being sold by D-Mec but even though Sony developed the device and software it is no longer actively involved in the business. Out of all of these companies Sony came the furthest and had machines on the market and was actively using and selling them. Sony makes a lot of household technologies and many ancillary consumer electronics. Its deep in the living room with its Playstations. It is perhaps uniquely qualified to develop this technology so that it works in the household. It would be a shame if they didn’t try.

 

Given enough eyeballs, all things are shallow.

Iterative product development, using 3D printing in combat.

Mission Possible, full face masks.

3D printing a blank canvas.

The Sistine Chapel in an age of screens.

Punished for producing quality.

Dieter Rams vs. Jony Ive.

3D printing verus Mass production, 1% of everything.

 

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4 Comments

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  1. Dizingof
    28. Dec, 2012 at 8:12 pm #

    Whoa ! Great read !
    I’ll be spending the next hours sniffing those patents you linked to.

    +1 on the wish!

    Cheers

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