As larger companies eye up 3D printing, are they motivated by business or image?

By James Robinson , written on March 21, 2014

From The News Desk

As larger companies circle the 3D printing field through planned partnerships and new products, it’s easier to wonder cynically about true motivation: is this truly business driven given how new this technology is, or just an easy thing to co-opt to brand yourself as future-focused?

Exhibit A: By June of this year, all signs point to Hewlett-Packard making a major 3D printing announcement.

At a shareholder meeting on Wednesday, Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman again teased that a big announcement was coming down the pipeline. “We are hot on the case of 3D printing,” Whitman told her shareholders. She said something similar last October, talking up how she wanted HP to lead the market. In HP’s Palo Alto lab, there is a five-foot high giant 3D printer the company has been experimenting with.

Hewlett-Packard’s entrance into the 3D market could be a great thing. Consumer 3D printers are slow, of low-quality, and difficult to use. Whitman thinks that HP has worked out how to make them faster and better.

But it hasn’t been a good few years for Hewlett-Packard. It laid off 27,000 employees in 2012. Revenue fell again last year. The 3D printing market is tiny. It’s going to be about a decade before it gets really juicy. By promoting even an exceptionally good consumer 3D printer, HP could find itself too far ahead of consumer education with shareholders chafing for immediate returns. People have been crying bubble at the current 3D printing giants for months.

Still, if Hewlett-Packard makes a cool 3D printer and enough people notice, it can put itself back on the cutting edge for the first time in ages, at least in the minds of consumers.

Stranger makings have been afoot in this vein. A month ago, Hasbro announced a partnership with 3D Systems that received a lot of press without naming a specific detail about what would happen. The two companies would work together later in 2014 to “co-develop and commercialise innovative play printers and platforms later this year.” It’s a public announcement of what amounts to a playdate. The announcement was stacked with platitudes from Hasbro’s CEO acknowledging that 3D printing is the future.

At the start of March, Amazon’s first 3D print partnership generated dozens of headlines but amounted to little more than it agreeing to give four 3D printed consumer goods companies their own marketplace on the site. The first company to team up with Amazon was 3DLT and its CEO said it came about simply because they were loading products and Amazon didn’t have a 3D printed products category. 3DLT’s Amazon store, for what its worth, is a study in how far 3D printed goods have to come. It is stacked with stuff more notable for being 3D printed than what it is, looking like the standard array of phone cases, sculptures and bracelets you might see at a bad art stand at a weekend market.

Unlike Amazon and Hasbro, the Hewlett-Packard news has the potential to have real long-term implications, at least. But all three stories have the immediate impact of placing a company name in the same orbit of 3D printing for a quick image boost, furthering the notion that the technology as it stands now is cooler than it is impactful.

[image via thinkstock]