Asia has awakened to the possibilities of 3D printing, with early adopters around the region tinkering with hardware hacking, partially for fun, and also to tease out the commercial potential of a technology that could eventually disrupt entire supply chains.
However, Stratasys (NASDAQ: SSYS), a US-based pioneering maker of professional-grade 3D printers, has notably been working at it for decades. In a bid to bring the technology to widespread adoption, it has developed an interesting way to gauge success: Studying ratios.
Jonathan Jaglom, general manager of Stratasys in Asia-Pacific and Japan, explained this to me when he was here in Singapore this week at a 3D printing conference to talk about his prognosis for the technology’s prospects in the region.
One indicator to watch, he said, is the ratio between the number of 3D CAD software programs and 3D printers in the world. The ratio in Asia-Pacific lies between 1:80 and 1:120, according to studies by Stratasys, nowhere near an ideal situation. But that is good news to the company, since it hints that 3D printing could experience a boom in the coming years.
It is this potential boom that explains Jonathan’s presence in Singapore. It also explains why Stratasys, a company with over $400 million in annual revenue, decided to launch a new office here last week, its seventh location in Asia. Japan may be the largest Asia-Pacific market for the company, but China followed by Southeast Asia are the fastest growing. Asia-Pacific as a whole is Stratasys’ fastest rising region in sales.
Asia muscles in on 3D printing
While the small Singapore office with a “handful of staff” will deal mainly with customer retention, support, and marketing activities, Jonathan says that Stratasys is open to doing more, perhaps even setting up an R&D center on the island. While talks with the government are still in the early stages, the state has recently announced a decision to pump S$500 million ($400 million) over the next five years into a “future of manufacturing” program, which includes 3D printing.
Singapore’s move echoes what is being done in China, which has invested in several 3D printing research centers and set up an alliance involving businesses and universities to work out new industrial standards and policies.
For sure, Asia has been slow to realize the possibilities of 3D printing, even in the enterprise sector alone. At a panel discussion where Jonathan was involved, held at the Inside 3D Printing conference, he faced questions that dealt with basic knowledge like how 3D printing can be utilized for manufacturing and the medical field — when in fact medicine was a pioneer use case for 3D printing when the technology emerged in 1988.
But Asia could catch up soon. Jonathan’s eyes brightened when he talked about the universities and colleges in Singapore, which are buying high-end 3D printing platforms. That is generally not the case among universities in Europe and the United States, which tend to for lower-end ones. He adds:
Asia is all about growth. Education is a means to mitigate the gap between Asia and the West, since manpower is the way to catch up. It also helps that the Singapore government has the ability to think long-term, and is not subject to budget cuts.
Of course, ramping up a nascent industry in Asia won’t be easy, and Jonathan, whose shoulders sagged a little after seemingly visualizing the road ahead, acknowledged market education as his “biggest challenge”.
3D printing may now be a familiar word around town, but it will take a lot of awareness-building before the masses can explain in detail what the phrase actually means. The process of converting the masses is complicated, and involves getting potential customers to buy-in and switch from their old habits. Gesturing to the conference hall, Jonathan asks:
How many people in this big, fantastic space really understands the value of 3D printing? If I were to stop people and ask them, a lot of them won’t know what Stratasys is doing.
Waiting for boomtime
The company’s approach is to invest in the infrastructure and manpower so that when the surge does come, it will be ready. It is currently working on integrating with Objet, a 3D printing company that it acquired last year. That involves cross-training, standardizing the order to fulfillment process, knowledge transfer, and more.
The company is also liaising with governments to ensure that legislation doesn’t become an unnecessary impediment to the growth of 3D printing. Jonathan says that laws should balance governing the applications of 3D printing without hindering the technology itself:
In Singapore, you need a license to manufacture weapons. But just because you make a gun using a 3D printer doesn’t make it any less illegal.
While Stratasys has been meaning to enlarge the market for professional 3D printers, the dream of building a truly mass market consumer device — perhaps the industry’s holy grail — is still some ways off.
Its acquisition of Makerbot is a statement that the consumer market has become “too significant to ignore,” but even now the buyers and users of these entry-level products are techies and hobbyists. But it’s also a statement that Stratasys is prepared to look long-term and bet on a future where 3D printers will become so ubiquitous as to be found in every home.
Hardware-focused Stratasys won’t have all the answers, because part of the problem is surely the inaccessibility of 3D CAD software. Nonetheless, if startups like Pirate3D and others succeed, the software component will eventually fall into place.
Catching the wave won’t just be a matter of acquiring up-and-comers for Stratasys. It also involves observing astutely and checking ratios.
(Edited by Paul Bishoff and Charlie Custer)