March 12, 2019

3D Printing: Does Anyone Get It?

Jack Heslin

Jack Heslin
Founder / President/3DTechTalks

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With every new technology, there is a period of learning and even out and out confusion about how that technology should be used. There's nothing new about this. Go all the way back to the first industrial revolution and there were business owners asking questions about the new the technologies of the day and whether or not they should be adopted. They asked what problems those new technologies solved and what opportunities they made possible? This pattern has repeated itself over and over with every innovation since. An interesting corollary to this – and one that's hardly ever talked about – is that while it makes perfect sense for the buyers of new technologies to have questions and some confusion about just what it is they are evaluating, it's almost just as common for the sellers of the new technologies to not fully understand the true value and impact of what it is they sell.

I saw a firsthand example of this recently in 3D Printing that really surprised me. I won't say the name of the company or where they’re located but they are an HP reseller looking for an account executive to sell the HP Multi Fusion Jet 3D Printer. For the record, I'm a pretty big fan of HP's strategy in this space and of the Fusion Jet technology in particular. This is a $300,000 to $400,000 machine that produces outstanding parts and has taken direct aim at making additive technologies applicable for production parts instead of just prototyping. This represents a big step in the industry by one of the best-known manufacturing companies in the world.  

By coincidence, I know someone who applied for this account executive position and after talking to the recruiter was recommended to the reseller’s head of HR for a phone interview. After that interview, this individual was told by the HR person he would be recommended to the vice president of sales as a qualified candidate. The person I know who was applying for the position waited almost 3 weeks to hear back. He did follow up a couple of times while waiting and then finally heard that the vice president would not be interviewing him because he did not have "experience selling capital equipment". Wow!! 

What makes this so absurd is the company selling the Fusion Jet 3D printer is pretty new in the 3D space (although they have been an HP partner for many years) while the person applying for the position had over 5 ½ years' experience in the industry (although – admittedly – selling printers at a much lower price point). However, the candidate had worked with major organizations like GE and Pratt and Whitney, worked with major universities and sold printers to the US military. In addition, he had also been retained as a consultant to help companies choose the right 3D Printer for their needs and was a spokesperson at industry trade shows. This individual was more than qualified to be interviewed for the position.

What makes the company's response so odd is that here they are selling a Fusion Jet 3D printer and thinking it's like selling a piece of capital equipment. They're thinking this is like talking to a customer about going from a 3-axis CNC machine to a 5-axis CNC machine and it's nothing like that. 

There's enormous confusion around 3D Printing today and it's understandable. The 3D Printer manufacturers, the material providers and the applications are growing exponentially. It is enormously difficult for an organization to wade through all of the choices, all the options and figure out which is the right technology for them but also, and more important, to begin to understand that adopting a 3D (or Additive Manufacturing for the technical purist) strategy is about understanding this technology represents fundamental changes in the way your business will do business in the coming years. 

Even with all the attention, all the media buzz, all the trade shows and conferences, there still are many questions in the vast majority of manufacturing companies about how to work with thermoplastics, resins or metal powders. Do you buy a 3D printer to work with the technology in house? Do you work with a service bureau for as long as you can? Do you combine the technologies so they complement one another? Do you understand the distinctions between designing for 3D Printing as opposed to traditional technologies like CNC, injection molding or castings? Do you know what generative design is as provided by companies like Paramatters and how important that will be in years to come? If you're an OEM in the middle of a supply chain, have you thought about how your customers and your suppliers might be looking at 3D Printing? We know these questions are what companies are asking because these are what our clients ask us!

Several years ago an excellent sales book came out called The Challenger Sale. The book did a first-rate job of explaining how customers today are looking for vendors who can teach them things about their businesses they don't know. Teach the customers the things they'll need to know to stay in business! Selling a high-end 3D printer is a Challenger Sale application if ever there was one.

3D printing can impact a company in many ways. The part consolidation 3D Printing makes possible changes supply chains, which changes parts in inventory which impacts cash flow, which frees up resources for other projects. Making parts closer to where they’re needed impacts freight forwarding. If you’re a business owner you’ll be asking what jobs skills are going to be needed in the future and what job skills might start to diminish in demand? The largest manufacturing companies have the resources to do work this in house. But there is an enormous middle tier of manufacturing that does not have the resources to do the research, come up with the right questions so they can be confident they know they’re making the right decisions. These customers will need help. 

That's what sets selling a $300,000 or $400,000 3D Printer apart from selling some other piece of capital equipment. 3D Printing in the coming years will present companies with difficult challenges as to where and how they use the technology and – perhaps most important – ask the difficult question are their customers and suppliers adopting additive strategies that could quite possibly cut them out of a supply chain all together? GE's Advanced Turboprop engine that was redesigned to consolidate 855 parts into 12 is an outstanding example of what's possible with additive technologies and the superior part performance that comes with it. But how many suppliers were impacted in the process? How many saw it coming?

That's what makes it so odd – and blatantly clear - that even those organizations selling additive solutions have yet to figure out exactly the value of what it is they sell. There is really no doubt in the years to come the most successful companies selling 3D printers at any price will be the ones who show their customers this technology represents a fundamental shift in how they do business and that shift is going to take place over many years. Those customers will be looking for vendors who can help guide them through the process. The vendors who understand that will do just fine.

As for those companies that sell 3D printers thinking it's simply about selling another piece of capital equipment? Well they probably won't be selling them for very long.

Comments? You can contact me directly via my AdvisoryCloud profile.

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